Hillsdale College


The Anatomy of Agency: A Cross-Cultural Experimental Philosophy of Religion Investigation into Causation, Free Will, and Responsibility.

Ryan Nichols (Cal. State Fullerton)

Total Award Amount: $249,550
Start Date: July 1, 2022
End Date: June 30, 2024

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What philosophical intuitions do folk have pertaining to religion and agency, especially about free will, causation, and moral responsibility, and what differences emerge about these philosophical intuitions among Western, Indian, and Chinese folk, whether Christian, Buddhist or unaffiliated? The goal of Part 1 is to extend XPhi work on action theory into philosophy of religion, and to make this research far more cross-cultural. Part 1 uses experiments in several cultures to understand conditions in which human, divine, and AI agents’ beliefs are said to be freely willed, and to cause behavior; the effects divine foreknowledge and sovereignty on folk’s intuitions about free will and responsibility; and intuitions about causation under conditions relevant to philosophy of religion, for example, about when events are judged to be miracles performed by Guanyin 觀音 and God. Part 1 results obtain value because each of these issues represents ongoing XPhi research concerns.

Why do folk endorse the philosophical intuitions and beliefs that they do regarding causation, free will, and responsibility, and why are cross-cultural differences found? The goal of Part 2 is to employ a battery of psychometric scales to each experiment in Part 1 to increase the inferential clarity and meaning of results. Since we aim to produce publications that reach both philosophers and psychologists, we plan to use (a) cross-culturally validated scales and (b) scales explicitly designed to assess cross-cultural differences relevant to project goals, as well as (c) to conduct advanced statistical modeling to get the most out of data from Parts 1 and 2. Work in Part 2 will integrate XPhi results with relevant cognitive science about causal reasoning (Lombrozo 2006), cognitive science of religion (Barrett 2004), and cross-cultural psychology (Spencer-Rodgers & Peng 2018).

How did philosophical intuitions about religion and agency culturally evolve along different pathways across Western European, Indian, and East Asian culture? Suppose in Part 1 we find cross-cultural differences in philosophical and religious intuitions and that Part 2 partially explains these differences as mediated by analytic and holistic cognitive styles. How then did holistic cognitive style culturally evolve to exert influence on philosophical ideas about religion and agency? Design of Part 3 takes advantage of a unique ‘natural experiment’ whereby in the second-century CE Buddhism (often described as self-focused, transcendent, analytical, and individualist) migrated from India into Confucian China (often described as family-focused, eminent, holistic, and collectivist). We will apply machine learning algorithms to historical corpora to understand changes pertaining to agency, free will, causation, and morality wrought to representations of the very same god (called ‘Avalokiteśvara’ in Indian Buddhist texts, ‘Guanyin’ 觀音 in Chinese texts) within the same religion across the two cultures. Answering this how question as proposed is likely to advance knowledge in fields of philosophy, religious studies, history, and Asian studies through its innovative design and integration with research in Parts 1 and 2.

Project Team

Ryan Nichols (Cal. State Fullerton)

Ryan Nichols is a professor of philosophy at Cal State Fullerton. Ryan’s interdisciplinary research focuses on questions about the origins and maintenance of Chinese culture, and conceptual issues emerging from cultural evolution. He writes about interactions between the physical ecology, culture, social psychology, emotion and cognition. He published a monograph in history of philosophy called Thomas Reid's Theory of Perception with Oxford University Press in 2007. He held year-long postdoctoral or research fellowships at University of British Columbia’s Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition & Culture; University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion; and the National Endowment for the Humanities. From August 2017 to July 2020, he was a John Templeton Foundation “Academic Cross-Training” fellow (JTF 60704). This enabled him to return to the university classroom for retraining in statistics, methods, and more, enhancing his ability to collaborate with social scientists and data modelers. From January 2019 to December 2021, Nichols serves as PI of a Templeton World Charities Foundation project entitled “Understanding China’s Changing Moral Psychology”. In this capacity he is editor of the forthcoming The Routledge International Handbook of Morality, Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior in China (2022) and a companion Chinese translation forthcoming with Ainosco press (2022). Over the last two years he completed a series of papers focused on understanding cultural evolution of cognitive variation in Confucian Heritage cultures. On the “The Anatomy of Agency: A Cross-Cultural Experimental Philosophy of Religion Investigation into Causation, Free Will, and Responsibility” project, Ryan serves as managing PI.