The Four million dollar philosopher
Alfred Mele interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Out of the smoke of his burning armchair Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele has been awarded a $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to get to the bottom of the question for the ages. Mele, the William H. and Lucyle Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, will oversee a four-year project to improve understanding of free will in philosophy, religion and science. 3:AM asks the man, are we free?
3:AM: So when did you start having philosophical thoughts? Were you a brooding kind of child and youth, or was it something specific that happened or you read or saw that started it all happening?
Alfred Mele: My old high-school friends tell me that I was very philosophical back then. In my opinion, their memory is biased by what they know about me now. I loved reading science fiction when I was a kid. It undoubtedly prompted some philosophical reflection that I didn’t recognize as such at the time. But that was a long time ago; memory fades. I became hooked on philosophy in college. A course on ancient Greek philosophy did it. I was bowled over by Plato’s – and especially Aristotle’s – amazing combination of breadth and depth. I wound up writing my dissertation on Aristotle’s theory of human motivation.
3:AM: You are a leading philosopher interested in free will. You were recently awarded a four million dollars plus grant to study the subject. That’s fantastic! It’s a traditionally metaphysical philosophical problem but recently it has been studied more as a scientific issue. So although on the face of it the grant looks like philosophy is being endorsed, this might not be so obvious if we take that into consideration. A grant for a study into philosophy less connected to scientific methodology, for example, wouldn’t get the money. So what does this grant tell us about the current status of philosophy general?
AM: Yes, a $4.4 million grant just for philosophical work on free will would exist only in a remote possible world (to use some philosophical jargon). But the explanation of this fact really is very simple. Scientific research on free will is way more expensive than ordinary philosophical research on the topic because scientific experiments are expensive and philosophers normally need only some time away from teaching to concentrate on research and writing.
The Big Questions in Free Will (BQFW) project is funding a total of eight two-year science projects on free will at an average cost of about $340,000. Of the twenty-four people on the winning teams, seven are philosophers. One of the guiding ideas of the BQFW project is that experiments on free will conducted by teams that include scientists and philosophers might be particularly promising (for reasons I’ll get into later).
Our philosophy and theology grants are for a maximum of one year. In 2011, there were six winners at an average cost of a bit over $50,000. This level of funding is adequate when there are no lab expenses, no research assistants, etc. There’s a second round of competition this year.
3:AM: Having said that, the project you direct, Big Questions In Free Will, might be construed as being linked only to science. But it includes not just science and philosophy but theology too. Theology might be thought to be an interesting domain for a tough minded philosophy project, so can you say why we shouldn’t be surprised by finding it in this exciting work?
AM: The BQFW project is funded by the philosophy and theology wing of the John Templeton Foundation. There is a lot of interesting theoretical work on free will not only in philosophy but also in theology. Work of both kinds merits support. Incidentally, the first-round winners in the theology of free will competition are all “tough minded” philosophers.
3:AM: You of course have written several books about aspects of free will. So I guess we really do need to know what you think about free will: is it real and do we have it?
AM: Is free will real and do we have it? That depends on what you mean by “free will.” Suppose Joe asks me whether resident aliens exist. I’m thinking about people like my friend Flori, a Romanian citizen living in the U.S. So I say yes. But he’s thinking about beings from other planets who reside on Earth. So he infers that I believe in the existence of such beings. Sometimes it’s important to say what we mean by an expression before we make claims about existence.
What does “free will” mean? Several different answers are in circulation both inside and outside the academic world. According to some people, free will is housed only in non-physical souls; it’s a supernatural power. According to others, whether or not souls exist, free will doesn’t depend on them. People in this second group divide into two subgroups. Some will tell you that the ability to make rational, informed, conscious decisions in the absence of undue force – no one holding a gun to your head – is enough for free will. Others say that something important must be added: If you have free will, then alternative decisions are open to you in a deep way that I will say something about. Sometimes, perhaps, you would have made a different decision if things had been a bit different. For example, if you had been in a slightly better mood, you might have decided to buy two boxes of girl scout cookies instead of just one. But this is not enough for the kind of openness at issue. What is needed is that more than one option was open to you, given everything as it actually was at the time – your mood, all your thoughts and feelings, your brain, your environment, and, indeed, the entire universe and its entire history.
Somewhere along the line – during a BigThink interview I did, I believe; but possibly earlier – it occurred to me that we can think of the three different views of free will that I just sketched on the model of standard fuel options at gas stations. Some people opt for premium gas. It’s analogous to the soulful conception of free will that I described. Others prefer mid-grade gas, which corresponds to the idea of free will that features deep openness and is noncommittal about souls. And still others are happy with regular gas, an analogue of the remaining view of free will – the one that highlights rationality and the absence of force and is noncommital about deep openness.
I won’t explore these views here; there’s not enough space for that. (Readers interested in philosophical assessment of views of free will might like my Free Will and Luck.) But I don’t want to duck the question. So is free will real? If we understand free will as the analogue of regular gas, yes. If we understand it as the analogue of mid-grade gas, it’s hard to say. As far as I can tell now, it’s an open scientific question whether the brain works in a way that provides for the kind of openness I described. What if we understand free will as the analogue of premium gas? If I could think of a good reason to understand it that way, I’d give you an answer.
3:AM: It’s interesting that you write about how although philosophical theories have often not taken into account recent empirical evidence coming from cognitive science and neuroscience, for instance, you also worry that these scientific approaches fail to recognize the various models of free will developed in philosophy and theology. Can you give an example of this issue and how you think we should proceed. There will be some that say that philosophers who try and work it out from their armchairs are wasting everyone’s time; others will say that science is too limited in what kind of explanations it can offer to ever get to grips with something like free will. How do you think this standoff should be handled? Or is it a phony war really?
AM: I’ll try to give you a direct answer after providing some background. In my 2009 book, Effective Intentions, I assessed some much-discussed scientific arguments for the thesis that free will does not exist. The general structure of these arguments is simple. In stage 1, data are offered in support of some featured empirical proposition or other – for example, the proposition that conscious intentions are never among the causes of corresponding actions. In stage 2, the featured empirical proposition is combined with a proposition that expresses some aspect of the author’s view about what “free will” means to yield the conclusion that free will does not exist. What I argued in Effective Intentions is that the data do not warrant various empirical propositions featured in these arguments. If my arguments are successful, the scientific arguments are shown to be unsuccessful before there is any need to examine propositions about the meaning of “free will.”
Sometimes I hear that I am missing the real threat to free will posed by experiments of the sort I discuss – for example, Benjamin Libet’s work on decisions. The real threat, I am sometimes told, is bound up with what philosophers call substance dualism – a doctrine that includes a commitment to the idea that every human person is or has a non-physical soul or mind. (So we’re back to the analogue of premium gas.) This alleged threat is based on two claims: first, given what “free will” means, having free will requires being or having a non-physical soul or mind; and, second, the experiments at issue provide powerful evidence that such souls or minds don’t exist.
I don’t conceive of free will in a dualistic way. But a number of scientists say they do. For example, in a 2008 article in Current Biology, Read Montague writes:
Free will is the idea that we make choices and have thoughts independent of anything remotely resembling a physical process. Free will is the close cousin to the idea of the soul – the concept that ‘you’, your thoughts and feelings, derive from an entity that is separate and distinct from the physical mechanisms that make up your body. From this perspective, your choices are not caused by physical events, but instead emerge wholly formed from somewhere indescribable and outside the purview of physical descriptions. This implies that free will cannot have evolved by natural selection, as that would place it directly in a stream of causally connected events.
Here Montague represents free will as something that depends for its existence on the truth of substance dualism.
Anthony Cashmore, in a 2010 article (‘The Lucretian Swerve: The Biological Basis of Human Behavior and the Criminal Justice System’), asserts that “if we no longer entertain the luxury of a belief in the ‘magic of the soul,’ then there is little else to offer in support of the concept of free will.” And he makes the following claim: “In the absence of any molecular model accommodating the concept of free will, I have to conclude that the dualism of Descartes is alive and well. That is, just like Descartes, we still believe (much as we pretend otherwise) that there is a magic component to human behavior.”
Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, in a much discussed 2004 article (‘For the Law Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything’), claim that “Most people’s view of the mind is implicitly dualist and libertarian” without offering any hard evidence for the truth of this assertion. They also contend that “neuroscience has a special role to play” in the development of “moral intuitions that are at odds with our current social practices” because “as long as the mind remains a black box, there will always be a donkey on which to pin dualist and libertarian intuitions.” (A libertarian conception of free will is roughly my analogue of mid-grade gas. When you combine it with dualism, you move up to premium.)
In his new book, Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, Michael Gazzaniga says that free will involves a ghostly or nonphysical element and “some secret stuff that is YOU.” Obviously, this isn’t a report of a scientific discovery about what “free will” means; he is telling us how he understands that expression – that is, what “free will” means to him. Given what Gazzaniga means by “free will,” it’s no surprise that, in his view, “free will is a miscast concept, based on social and psychological beliefs . . . that have not been borne out and/or are at odds with modern scientific knowledge about the nature of our universe.” However, he rejects the idea that moral responsibility depends on free will, and he makes a case for the thesis that moral responsibility exists. I’ll have more to say about this soon.
In my 2006 book Free Will and Luck and elsewhere, I defend a position on what “free will” means. My position is thoroughly naturalistic. I certainly don’t view free will as something that depends for its existence on the truth of substance dualism. If a philosopher and, say, a biologist who disagree about what “free will” means were having a cordial discussion about their disagreement, it would not be surprising if, before very long, one of them said that the other was using “free will” in a specialized way that is out of touch with ordinary usage. Such a claim is worth testing, and soon I’ll say something about a test I conducted.
Biologists know that the simple fact that they are biologists doesn’t give them any special insight into what the expression “free will” means. (Some biologists may believe that philosophers don’t have any special insight into the meaning of “free will” either, and they may offer as evidence the great amount of disagreement among philosophers about what “free will” means.) They can be led to entertain the thought that their understanding of that expression may be an artifact of their own personal upbringing and to consider the hypothesis that they are out of touch with ordinary usage of “free will.” In experiments with human participants, scientists definitely prefer to have a sample size larger than one person; and any scientist can see that if the way he or she goes about determining what “free will” means is simply to consult his or her own feeling or intuition about the meaning, then – to the extent to which it is important to avoid being mistaken about the meaning of “free will” – he or she should seek a better method. (The simple, navel-gazing method is not recommended for philosophers either, of course.)
There is an interesting body of work in psychology and experimental philosophy on what nonspecialists mean by “free will.” In some work that will be published this year, I make a small contribution of my own. In one study, I invited participants to imagine a scenario in which scientists had proved that everything in the universe is physical and that what we refer to as “minds” are actually brains at work. In this scenario, a man sees a twenty dollar bill fall from a stranger’s pocket, considers returning it, and decides to keep it. I ask whether he had free will when he made that decision, and 73% answer yes. (In a related condition involving a compliance drug, only 21% of participants say the person has free will at the time.) If these participants are playing along, we have evidence that a majority of English speakers do not see having a non-physical mind or soul as a requirement for free will. In this, they differ from Montague, Cashmore, Greene, Cohen, Gazzaniga, and some others.
I might add that many people think that what they call “free will” is required for moral responsibility. People with this view of things who think of free will in the dualistic way Gazzaniga does, will – unlike him – think of moral responsibility as something that requires “some secret stuff that is YOU.” But other people with the view that moral responsibility depends on free will may agree with Gazzaniga’s naturalistic conception of responsibility and conceive of free will in the same naturalistic way (see Effective Intentions). If it turns out that Gazzaniga’s own magical conception of free will is a minority conception, then, in defending the existence of moral responsibility, he may also unwittingly be defending the existence of free will (at least, as many people conceive of free will).
I’ve decided to say a bit more about Gazzaniga’s new book here. In it, he sells our mental life short at times. For example, he writes: “When we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations, using post hoc observations with no access to nonconscious processing.” Is it true that we never succeed in explaining actions of ours partly in terms of conscious processing that preceded them?
As it happens, I read Gazzaniga’s book on a flight to a conference in Munich. People who invite philosophy professors to conferences rarely are willing to spring for a seat in first class, and this occasion was no exception. I like extra leg room on planes. So right after I buy a ticket in coach on line, I look for an exit row seat – first on the aisle and then next to a window. If I find a seat I like, I snatch it up. I do all this consciously. (I don’t know how to look for exit row seats unconsciously, though I’m sure computer programs can do it.) And I do it because, at the time, I have a conscious preference for extra leg room on long flights and I know – consciously know – how to get the extra room without paying more than my hosts are willing to spend. If someone had asked me to explain why I chose the seat I chose – or why I was sitting in that particular seat – I could have offered a fine explanation partly in terms of a conscious preference I had when I was going about the business of selecting a seat. And, of course, this explanation would not invoke a non-physical mind or soul, any more than Gazzaniga’s own position on emergent mental properties invokes one.
Why does Gazzaniga sell our mental life short? Perhaps because he is overly impressed by some of the experiments he discusses – well known experiments by Benjamin Libet and more recent work by Chun Siong Soon and colleagues. I discussed Libet’s work at length in my 2009 book, but a 2008 Nature Neuroscience article by Soon and colleagues was published while the book was in press; and because I did not discuss it there, I continue to get e-mail messages about it. I’ll say something about that article here.
On the basis of brain activity as measured by blood flow, Soon and colleagues were able to predict with 60% accuracy about seven seconds in advance of a button press whether a person would press the button on the left or the button on the right. People were supposed to decide on a button and then press it straightaway. They all did this many times, knowing that nothing hinged on which button they pressed.
What does the early brain activity at issue signify? Perhaps just an unconscious bias toward a particular button. In any case, there is no reason to prefer either button over the other. So if the person were asked why he pressed the left button this time, he should say something like “I just randomly picked it, because I’m following your instructions.” Because there is no place in the experiment for conscious reflection about which button to press, there is no place for an explanation of the button pressing in terms of conscious reasons for pressing it. The same general point applies to Libet’s studies; his subjects are arbitrarily picking a moment to begin flexing a wrist.
In the case of my selecting an exit row seat, things are very different. I know I have a reason – a good one – to select such a seat rather than an ordinary seat in coach. And because I do, I consciously look on line for an open seat in an exit row. By the way, given what I have told you, you can predict with close to 100% accuracy what I will try to do next time I buy a coach seat on a long flight; and you have achieved this degree of accuracy for free, just by consciously attending to what I wrote.
I said I’d try to give a direct answer to the question at hand. First, as the background I provided indicates, neuroscientific arguments for the nonexistence of free will may be badly misdirected if the conception of free will at work in them is the analogue of premium gas. Philosophical models of free will and experimental philosophy are directly relevant here. Also, anyone – including philosophers – can study the data produced by studies that are supposed to show that there’s no free will and make an informed judgment about how well or poorly they support such claims as that conscious intentions are never among the causes of corresponding actions or that conscious reasoning plays no role in producing decisions. Of course, philosophers can benefit from scientific work too. Libertarianism about free will embraces the mid-grade conception of free will and asserts that free will is real. Any evidence there may be about whether the brain works in ways suitable for the truth of this libertarian thesis would obviously be directly relevant. Philosophers’ claims that libertarianism is true made solely from the armchair do not seem promising, but this also is true of scientists’ claims about what “free will” means that are made solely from the armchair. Fortunately, neither group is restricted to the armchair on these topics.
3:AM: Can you tell me a bit more about the 2008 study by Soon and colleagues?
AM: Sure. Soon and coauthors write: “we found that two brain regions encoded with high accuracy whether the subject was about to choose the left or right response prior to the conscious decision.” They report that “the predictive neural information . . . preceded the conscious motor decision by up to 10 [seconds].” Science writer Elsa Youngsteadt (in ‘Case Closed for Free Will,’ ScienceNOW Daily News, April 14, 2008) represented these results as suggesting that “the unconscious brain calls the shots, making free will an illusory afterthought.”
In this study, as I mentioned, the encoding accuracy actually is only about 60% (50% being chance, of course). Using only a fair coin, I can predict with 50% accuracy which button a participant will press next. And if the person agrees not to press a button for a minute (or an hour), I can make my predictions a minute (or an hour) in advance. I come out ten points worse in accuracy, but I win big on the matter of time. An interesting issue here is what is in fact indicated by the neural activity that Soon and colleagues measure. My money is on a slight unconscious bias toward a particular button on the next go – a bias that may contribute to the participant’s having about a 60% chance of pressing that button next. In any case, the threat to free will here is an illusion.
3:AM: Linked to the last two questions, the opinion of folk, i.e. non-philosophical people, seems to be an important datum for researchers in this area. You’ve an article upcoming called ‘Folk Conceptions of Intentional Action.’ So why should what folk think about the issue of free will be important in this domain? After all, when physics comes up with descriptions of the universe that no folk could ever have we don’t send the physicists back to the drawing board. What’s so different here, especially since science seems to be given such a big role in the investigation?
AM: There are questions about what ordinary terms mean and questions about what exists. For example, we can ask “What does ‘free will’ mean?” And we can ask “Does free will exist?” How the latter question should be answered depends on how the former should be answered. As I see it, how lay folk use the expression “free will” is directly relevant to the former question. I wouldn’t try to figure out whether free will exists by asking lay folk whether it exists. But I do think that facts about how lay folk use the expression “free will” are relevant to some debates about what that expression means.
3:AM: Experimental philosophy is an exciting new way of doing philosophy isn’t it? How do you assess the approach to philosophy being developed by Josh Knobe and others? I presume you are part of this? Am I right? Does it mean that traditional philosophical methods of enquiry (crudely, sitting in the armchair) are redundant?
AM: Yes, I am part of it, even if experimental philosophy is only a small part of what I do. I have conducted experimental philosophy studies of intentional action (some with Fiery Cushman), weakness of will, self-deception, and free will. I find that I mainly use the methods of experimental philosophy when I find a certain view about some concept or other plausible and then I read that this seemingly plausible view is out of line with ordinary usage or with “the folk concept.” I don’t see my work in experimental philosophy as a threat to traditional philosophy or its methods. I see it as complementing traditional philosophy.
3:AM: In your book Self-Deception Unmasked you discuss the role of emotion in belief formation. Can you tell us what you think the roles of emotions are in this, and how this links with the notion of self-deception? And are we self-deceived a lot?
AM: Here’s how Self-Deception Unmasked begins: “A survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were better at their jobs than their average colleague” (Gilovich 1991, p. 77)! Are university professors exceptionally adept at self-deception? Perhaps not. “A survey of one million high school seniors found that . . . all students thought they were above average” in their “ability to get along with others . . . and 25% thought they were in the top 1%” (ibid)! One might suspect that the respondents to these surveys were not being entirely sincere in their answers. Then again, how many university professors do you know who do not think that they are better at what they do than their average colleague?
Self-deception, as I think of it, is (roughly) motivationally or emotionally biased false belief. Obviously, only 1% can be in the top 1%, nothing like 94% of professors can be above average for their profession, and so on. So, assuming that the people surveyed are reporting what they in fact believe, there are lots of false beliefs here. And why would they overestimate themselves on these matters? Part of the answer would seem to lie in what they want to be true: that they are very good at their job or extremely easy to get along with. It is likely that their wanting something to be true of them biases their self-estimations. So, yes, I think there’s quite a bit of self-deception in the world.
In what I have called “straight” self-deception, people are self-deceived in believing something they want to be true. Philosophical and psychological work on self-deception has focused on this phenomenon. Apparently, there also is a theoretically more perplexing, if much less common, kind of self-deception – a “twisted” kind. An example might be an insecure, jealous husband who believes that his wife is engaged in an affair even though he has only flimsy evidence for that proposition and does not want it to be true that she’s so engaged.
The question how instances of twisted self-deception are to be explained is largely an empirical one. In chapter 5 of Self-Deception Unmasked, drawing partly on empirical literature, I develop a pair of approaches to explaining twisted self-deception: a motivation-centered approach, and a hybrid approach featuring both motivation and emotion. My aim is to display our resources for exploring and explaining twisted self-deception and to show that promising approaches are consistent with the position I defend on straight self-deception. The issue is too complicated to go into here.
3:AM: So when your work is done and the big question is answered, will we have all the answers we require. And do you anticipate that we’ll have a different view about ourselves as a result? What do you think the implications of your work will be, especially in how we might need to rethink ways of doing politics, for example, and thinking about blame, punishment and the like?
AM: The BQFW grant winners so far include people who say free will exists, people who deny that it exists, and people who are undecided about this. In addition, the grant winners are tackling free will from lots of different angles. Among the topics under investigation are what goes on in the brain when people make decisions, the effects of people’s beliefs about free will on their behavior, and what lay folk mean by “free will.” The grant winners will participate in a trio of conferences. Now, we investigate things and we assume things. Certain assumptions that some researchers may make – for example, that “free will” means something essentially dualistic or that brain science really can’t tell us anything about free will – will actually be investigated by other researchers. And I’m hoping that everyone’s work on the topic will be enriched by the interaction at the conferences. I’m also hoping for – and expecting – significant progress on the topics studied. But I’m realistic about deep, complicated issues that have worried extremely bright people for a couple thousand years: we won’t reach a consensus on all the important questions about free will. As for implications about politics, punishment, and the like – let’s wait and see.
3:AM: And finally, have there been books that have been important to you that our smart but not necessarily philosophically trained readers should be reading this year? Could you give us a short reading list?
AM: My own books are important to me, but I won’t list them. Thinking back about the books I read in 2011, I can tell that I spend much more time reading articles than books and about as much time reading science as philosophy. OK, I’ll quit stalling. Here’s a thought. If I had to recommend just one book on free will for smart readers who might not have any philosophical training, I’d recommend Robert Kane’s The Significance of Free Will. It’s a serious work of philosophy that’s written in a way that should help smart people feel what’s deep, exciting, and puzzling about free will. I’m not saying I endorse his position on free will – I don’t (on this, see parts of my Free Will and Luck, for example.) But I do endorse his way of thinking and writing about free will. The philosophical work I enjoy reading most engages me in a way that motivates me to think hard about the issues as I read. Kane’s book will do that for smart, patient readers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 24th, 2012.