Arcadi on Visala

February 26th, 2018 by

I believe our January 31 AT seminar speaker, Dr. Aku Visala, is presently holding the record for “furthest distance traveled” of all our seminar speakers. Dr. Visala is an Academy Research Fellow in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki. Visala is one of those rare breeds who actually works at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and the sciences, and not just talks about that intersection. He is currently in the theology faculty at Helsinki, but has also worked in Oxford at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind and the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion. Hence, he is uniquely equipped to address the question that formed the title of his talk, “What might theologians learn about free will from cognitive scientists?”

First off, we have to get clear on just what is meant by “free will.” Visala notes that he is interested in the kind of free will that gets one moral responsibility. He defines free will as, “the ability or power of persons such that if that ability or power is properly exercised, they can be held morally responsible.” In many of the discussions about free will today, some add on to Visala’s definition an extra ingredient known as the “principle of alternative possibilities” (PAP). The basic idea of this ingredient is that in order to be actually free, agents need to have the ability to do otherwise than they actually did. Consider an illustration from the sage Wikipedia:

“Donald is a Democrat and is likely to vote for the Democrats; in fact, only in one particular circumstance will he not: that is, if he thinks about the prospects of immediate American defeat in Iraq just prior to voting. Ms White, a representative of the Democratic Party, wants to ensure that Donald votes Democratic, so she secretly plants a device in Donald’s head that, if activated, will force him to vote Democratic. Not wishing to reveal her presence unnecessarily, Ms White plans to activate the device only if Donald thinks about the Iraq War prior to voting. As things happen, Donald does not think about Iraq prior to voting, so Ms White thus sees no reason to activate the device, and Donald votes Democratic of his own accord.”

Does Donald act freely in this case? People’s intuitions are likely to differ. But, what has this to do with cognitive science? Visala shows that some studies in psychology show that regular everyday people tend not to think that PAP is all that important an ingredient in the moral responsibility cake.

Now, just because “the folk” (non-philosophers) do not tend to think one needs PAP in order to be free does not mean that PAP is an unnecessary ingredient in moral responsibility. I think this was one area of confusion on my part and one area of pushback in the Q&A portion of our time together. When one does these sorts of empirical tests all, one can get at is what humans tend to think or intuitively think. But just because a certain group of humans think a certain way, doesn’t mean that automatically tracks onto reality. There is a question of whether or not “the folk” are really harbingers of anything as complicated as free will and human responsibility. We do not go polling the person on the street about issues in quantum mechanics or set theory; so how far can one actually take these surveys to be an indicator of how things really are with respect to free will? On the contrary, however, much of the debate on issues pertaining to free will and moral responsibility run on differing intuitions about what is needed for moral responsibility, so perhaps expanding the intuition-set in this regard could provide more data to work with.

Nevertheless, Visala gave a very helpful talk clearly showing that there is fruitful potential at the busy intersection of theology, philosophy, and psychology and gave further credence to the hunch some of us have had around the project that the time might be ripe to pursue something like “experimental analytic theology.” What is “experimental analytic theology” you ask? Well, it would entail running some similar experiments as has been run in the cognitive sciences investigating—what has been largely—a philosophical question, only including a theological component instead. So, instead of asking people about situations where PAP is in play or not, we could ask people what their intuitions are when PAP is not in play due to the fact that God has determined the course of action for a certain situation. Does this entail the human agent is not morally responsible? This seems like an important question to ask, but will need to be saved for another day…and probably another grant!

James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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