I’ll try to put up two posts on this topic today as a single one would probably be too long, falling into the TL; DR category.
About two weeks ago, kvetching about the Templeton Foundation’s incursion into and corruption of philosophy and biology, I wrote about Dan Dennett’s criticism of Templeton. This came up when Dan reviewed a book by Alfred Mele,: Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will (2014). At the end of his review, Dennett “threw shade” on Mele for taking so much money from Templeton. (Mele responded, of course). But because Dan liked the book, and it’s short (less than 100 small pages), I went ahead and read Free. I’m going to ignore Templeton here and concentrate on Mele’s book. I’ll just say that Mele’s conclusion, that contracausal free will may be pervasive, is clearly something Templeton would throw money at.
I wasn’t impressed with the book. Mele does point out a few alternative interpretations to experiments like Benjamin Libet’s which apparently show that some decisions can be predicted with accuracy of up to 80% by brain-scanning as far as ten seconds before the actor is conscious of having made a decision. Some of Mele’s criticisms are useful, while others are not. Mele’s main objection is that the real decisions we make are based on rational pondering and consideration, and these decisions are very different from the simple binary choices predicted by brain-scanning studies. To that I reply “so what”?
First, it’s possible that you can engage in complex reasoning before making a binary decision, and I can think of lab experiments that could see if those decisions could also be predicted by brain scanning. (It would be harder, since training the subject to do the experiment beforehand would be more difficult.) More important, “reasoning” and “cogitation” are just complex computer processes that go on at various levels in many species of animal, and why should those be independent of the laws of physics? The input may be complex, but the output is still limited.
Mele’s conception of free will in this case is similar to that of Dennett’s in Freedom Evolves: free will is the fact that when an agent arrives at the ability to ponder different scenarios, cogitate, and then make a “rational” decision, that process constitutes free will, regardless of whether (as Dennett believes), such decisions are purely deterministic. This is a form of compatibilist free will, in which “free will” is conceived as something that is perforce compatible with determinism. (By “determinism, I mean “obeying the laws of physics, including purely indeterministic phenomena like quantum mechanics”.)
But Mele actually considers two forms of free will. The one above he calls “modest free will”, defined as “having the ability to make—and act on the basis of—rational informed decisions when you’re not being subjected to undue force” (p. 78).
The other form, which is libertarian, he calls “ambitious free will”, requiring what he calls “deep openness”. In this form of free will, says Mele, “free agents have open to them alternative decisions that are compatible with everything that has already happened and with the laws of nature” (p. 79). This is clearly contracausal or “you-could-have-done-otherwise” free will.
Which one does Mele adhere to in his book? Well, it’s not clear, since he lays out different varieties at the outset, and the last paragraph of his book implies that science has refuted neither of the two versions described above. He’s wrong about “ambitious” free will.
So, you ask, does free will exist? If you mean what I call modest free will, I say yes without hesitation. If you mean what I call ambitious free will, I say the jury is still out. In fact, this point about the jury is the main moral of this book. Scientists have most definitely not proved that free will—is an illusion. For all we know now, ambitious free will is widespread. If it isn’t, at least modest free will is.
That’s a pretty weaselly statement. What I would say is this: “For all we know now, ambitious free will—contracausal, you-could-have-done-otherwise free will is NOT widespread.” That’s because such free will requires violating the laws of physics in such a way that at a given point in time, with every molecule in the same place and everything leading up to a “decision identical”, you could have decided differently. Now the only thing that could create such different behavior is quantum mechanics, and we don’t know if quantum mechanics can even play a role in human decisions. And even if it can, that is not “free will” in the sense that an agent you, would be making the decision instead of an indeterministic movement of a particle. If you are going to promulgate the idea that at a given point in time you can really make “alternative decisions”—decisions that you (rather than an errant electron) decide, then you are suggesting that humans can flout the laws of physics. This is magic.
While some people punt and say that you can have contracausal free will without flouting those laws, I don’t see how that’s possible. Such an attitude is profoundly anti-naturalistic given that are brains are made of molecules. Compatibilist free will? “Yes”, of course, because you can define anything as free will so long as it doesn’t disobey the laws of physics. But the form of free will to which most people adhere is a contracausal free will, as surveys show. True, philosophers adhere to compatibilist free will, but I’m not so much concerned with what academic philosophers think about the topic than I am about what the average person thinks about free will. It’s just like I’m more concerned with what the average believer thinks about God than what Sophisticated Theologians™ like Karen Armstrong think about God.
But Mele’s “ambitious free will” does flout the laws of physics, and in that sense the jury, which is physics, has already decided against it. I am in fact surprised that Dan liked Mele’s book so much given that Mele leaves open the possibility of contracausal free will, something that Dan rejects.
There are other problems with Mele’s book as well. He uses as evidence for free will the fact that in some “identical” situations, such as Milgram’s famous “shock the subject” experiments, not everybody behaved the same way. Some people continued to up the fake shocks as the subject pretended to be in pain, while others desisted. In Zimbardo’s famous “prison experiment”, some of the guards were nasty to the prisoners, while others weren’t. As Mele argues:
If situations really did completely determine behavior, then everyone in the same situation would act the same way. But only some of the guards acted cruelly; others didn’t. This pessimistic view of decisions isn’t true to the facts.
Mele does this over and over again, ignoring the fact that the “situation” isn’t the same for everyone: the subjects have different genes, different life experiences, and had different experiences of the prisoners or subjects of these experiments. To say that determinism and a lack of free will predicts that everyone will act the same in an experiment is to evince shoddy thinking. And that, in fact, is the subject of the next post in this series, describing an experiment that Mele uses in his book to support “ambitious” free will.
Unlike Dan, I can’t recommend Mele’s book. It is tendentious, regardless of whether Templeton had a hand in funding the research (there’s a long and butt-kissy acknowledgement to the Templeton Foundation at the beginning). In fact, while reading it I felt that I was stuck in Fulsome Prison.