Reports of the Death of Free Will Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

12 Oct 2015

Since Florida State University philosophy professor Alfred Mele spoke at STI’s 2010 Experts Meeting "Is Science Compatible with Our Desire for Freedom?", he has been prolific on the topic.

In the 5 years since the meeting, Mele has headed two projects: Big Questions in Free Will (2010-2013); and Philosophy and Science of Self-Control (2014-2017), and has published three books: Backsliding: Understanding Weakness of Will  (Oxford University Press, 2012); A Dialogue on Free Will and Science  (Oxford University Press, 2014); Free: Why Science Hasn't Disproved Free Will  (Oxford University Press, 2014), and edited a fourth: Surrounding Free Will: Philosophy, Psychology, Neuroscience (Oxford University Press, 2014) 

In my latest book, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, I sketch three different ways of understanding free will. Here, I will briefly describe the two I find most attractive. Some people argue that as long as you are able to make rational, informed decisions without being subjected to undue force (e.g., a loaded gun), you have free will. Others insist that something crucial must be added to these abilities: If you have free will, then alternative decisions must be open to you in a deep way upon which I will try to shed some light now.Professor Mele summarizes his work for us here:

Sometimes, you would have made a different decision if the situation had been a bit different. For example, if you had been in a slightly better mood, you might have decided to donate $40 to a worthy cause instead of just $20. But this is not sufficient for the kind of openness at issue, something I call deep openness. What is needed is a plurality of options, given everything as it actually was at the time, including your mood, all your thoughts and feelings, your brain, your environment, and, indeed, the entire universe and its history. Having been able to have made a different decision if things had been a bit different is one thing; having been able to have made a different decision in the absence of any prior difference is another.

In requiring the openness I described, the second view of free will is more ambitious than the first. For ease of reference, I call it the ambitious view and its counterpart the modest view.

You will have noticed that the subtitle of my new book is Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. Some alleged disproofs of free will come from neuroscience. Almost everyone who believes in free will—either the ambitious or the modest kind—believes that the brain plays an indispensable role in generating decisions. The challenge that neuroscience is supposed to pose to free will is not based simply on the idea that brains are at work in decision making. Instead, some neuroscientists claim that our brains produce our decisions unconsciously and that we become aware of them only after the fact. This is worrisome because it would seem that deciding freely depends on deciding consciously. But, if all your decisions are made unconsciously, it would appear that it is not really up to you what you decide. If true, that certainly spells trouble for free will.

Another challenge to the existence of free will comes from social psychology. Some researchers think that our behavior is so powerfully influenced by factors of which we are totally unaware that there is no room left for free choice. According to this way of thinking, the circumstances of the various situations in which we find ourselves dictate what we do. Again, what we do is not up to us.

In Free, I explain why the scientific experiments that are most often claimed to prove that there is no free will, in fact, leave the existence of free will wide open. I regard this as good news. There is evidence that lowering people’s confidence in the existence of free will increases bad behavior. In a 2008 study by Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, people who read passages in which scientists deny that free will exists cheat more often on a subsequent task than others do. In a 2009 study by Roy Baumeister, college students presented with a series of sentences denying the existence of free will proceed to behave more aggressively than a control group: they serve larger amounts of spicy salsa to people who say they dislike spicy food, despite being told these people have to eat everything on their plates.

Why does this happen? One potential explanation is pretty straightforward. As your confidence that you have free will diminishes, your impression of yourself as responsible or accountable for what you do weakens. If you are not responsible, you really do not deserve to be blamed for your unseemly actions. And believing that you cannot be blamed for acting on your dishonest or aggressive urges reduces your incentive to control them. So you cheat or dish out unpleasantness. We can imagine a student who is piling on the hot salsa thinking, “Hey, you can’t blame me for the heartburn you’re about to get; I’m not responsible for what I do.”

What primarily drives my work on free will is a desire to get at the truth about a deep and important issue. But I also worry about a society that does not believe in free will. The pervasive flaws in free will research must be exposed. (There is insufficient space in this essay to delve into the experimental details. However, I do so in Free. And although Free isn’t free, it is cheap.) When Mark Twain spotted a newspaper account of his death, he drolly announced the truth: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Similarly, reports of the death of free will have been greatly exaggerated.

Free will is closely associated with moral responsibility in philosophical thinking. When we think of responsibility, people who have much to answer for come quickly to mind. They range from financial schemers like Bernie Madoff to genocidal maniacs like Adolf Hitler. This pulls one to the dark side of things, but I steer toward the light. If you see yourself as morally responsible for your future actions, you will view yourself as having abilities and capacities on which responsibility depends and therefore as having considerable control over what you do – in other words, free will. As I see it, this outlook is far more accurate than pessimistic ones that portray us as being entirely at the mercy of forces beyond our control. What’s more, as Carol Dweck and Daniel Molden observed in a 2008 article, there is evidence that belief in free will promotes personal well-being. There is a lot to be said for free will.

A meaningful discussion of free will benefits enormously from the precise and consistent use of terms. To that end, the Big Questions in Free Will project (funded by the John Templeton Foundation) created a free will lexicon. Coauthored by a pair of scientists (Patrick Haggard and Kathleen Vohs) and a pair of philosophers (Tim O’Connor and me), it was designed to assist grant applicants by focusing attention on issues about free will of special philosophical interest. (The lexicon was subsequently published in a 2014 book I edited, Surrounding Free Will: Philosophy, Psychology, Neuroscience, as an appendix to a collection of essays by grant winners.) I will draw on it now.

A major division in philosophical theories about free will is defined partly in terms of determinism. Determinism is the thesis that a complete statement of the laws of nature together with a complete description of the entire universe at any point in time logically entails a complete description of the entire universe at any other point in time. Compatibilists maintain that determinism, so defined, does not rule out free will, and incompatibilists maintain that it does. The overwhelming majority of compatibilists today do not believe that determinism is true; their claim is that even if it were true, that would leave room for free will. The modest conception of free will that I described is in the compatibilist camp; the ambitious version is in a relatively typical libertarian camp. (Libertarians are incompatibilists who believe in free will.)

Many people believe that the battle is between free will and determinism. However, most non-philosophers use determinism to mean “something that is incompatible with free will.” But, compatibilists do not use the term that way. Actually, neither do informed incompatibilists. Both groups use a definition similar to the one above.

In my writing on free will, I have always maintained neutrality on the issue that divides compatibilists and incompatibilists. I have argued that the claim that free will exists is more credible than the claim that it does not.

So, you must be wondering, does free will exist? If you mean modest free will, I say yes without hesitation. If you mean ambitious free will, I believe the jury is still out on that. In fact, the main theme of my book Free is that scientists have not proved that free will—even ambitious free will—is an illusion. For all we know, ambitious free will is widespread. If it is not, modest free will most certainly is.


Prof. Alfred Mele is the William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University.

He participated in STI's Experts Meeting "Is Science Compatible with Our Desire for Freedom?" (2010).