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Children and Adults Don’t Think They Are Free: A Skeptical Look at Agent Causationism

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Contribution to book (peer-reviewed)
Author Huber Lukas, Reuter Kevin, Trix Caccione,
Project The Conceptual Space of the Affective Mind
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Contribution to book (peer-reviewed)

Book Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Causation
Editor , Wiegmann Alexander; , Willemsen Pascale
Publisher Bloomsbury, New York
Page(s) 1
ISBN n/a
Title of proceedings Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Causation

Open Access

Type of Open Access Green OA Embargo (Freely available via Repository after an embargo)


Two strands of evidence supposedly exist in support of the claim that people think of themselves as agent causationists, that is, as agents who can start and prevent causal chains. First, results from developmental studies suggest that children between the ages of four and six undergo a transition towards thinking of themselves as unconditional free agents. Second, experimental studies indicate that adults think of themselves as agents who, having made some choice, could have done otherwise under exactly the same circumstances. In this paper, we present new evidence that tells against both strands of evidence. Based on empirical data we collected with children ages four to six (Study 1), we argue that six-year-old children only endorse freedom of choice if they are presented with at least two conflicting desires which are compatible with their own desires. This undermines any strong conclusion to the claim that children think of themselves as agent causationists. The results of Study 2 reveal that people (adults) indeed agree that they ‘could have done otherwise’ given the same circumstances, but only when this phrase is interpreted as a matter ofability. When people are asked whether it is possible that an agent does otherwise, holding the circumstances exactly the same, a majority of people think not. Given that belief in agent causationism is one of the main motivations for the metaphysical account of agent causation, our results also can be seen as evidence against agent causation.