Dr. Alfred Mele is one of the world’s leading philosophy experts specialising on the topic of Free Will. He is the director of the Philosophy and Science of Self Control Project, and was previously the director of the Big Questions in Free Will Project. He is also a tenured professor at Florida State University, and the author of many books across varying philosophical topics. He very kindly took time out to speak with me and resolve some of my own philosophical musings!
Hi Alfred, Ross Glacken here, how are you?
Hi, good to hear from you.
First of all thanks a million for taking the time to speak with me. I’ve read some of your articles online and I’ve always be interested in various topics of philosophy, so it’s great to reach you.
Oh, well, thanks for calling.
To begin with, could you share just a brief background about yourself, who you are and what you do? Obviously you are a great philosophy professor but I wondered how you got to that point and what drew you there.
Oh, ok. Yah, oh jeez, how did it happen? Wellllll, possibly the main reason that I went to college was to get a student deferment from the Vietnam war (laughing), a long time ago. But I actually fell in love with college. And ah, at the beginning I thought I would be a math major, and in a math course there was a logic component, and I really liked logic, and I discovered it was also taught by the philosophy department. So I took a philosophy course in logic. And then, the first real philosophy course I took was a course on Plato and Aristotle. And it just blew me away. You know, those guys were dealing with just the most enormous questions. I think that’s what sucked me into it.
Okay. And was there a reason you were drawn more to Plato and Socrates than say to more modern thinkers or even big questions like Descartes’s ‘cogito ergo sum’. It seems you were more drawn to the questions of free will and that type of area, rather than the broader questions of ‘do I even exist?’.
(Laughing). Yeah! That’s true. Yeah, I actually ended up writing my dissertation on Aristotle’s theory of human motivation. So, I’ve always really been interested in human behaviour. When I was young I took a bunch of psychology courses too, but back then behaviourism was dominant, and behaviourism wasn’t all that exciting to me. I think if things had been different I might have gone into psychology instead of philosophy. But yeah, I’m ah, my central concerns all revolve around human nature, and I just assume that we exist. I don’t think I want to argue for it. Yeah, so some things I think we just need to assume and forge ahead. Right, so free will is one of the topics I’ve worked on a lot lately. My path there actually started with trying to understand certain kinds of irrational behaviours. So, this was quite a long time ago. My first book was published in 1987. It was called ‘Irrationality’. And it was about what we call weakness of will, and self deception and self control. And weakness of will is really acting contrary to what you’re convinced would be best to do from your own point of view. And I wondered, “how does that happen”. I worked out a theory about it. But the theory also had to do with human behaviour in general. So I started there, and my second book was on ‘how do we explain human behaviour?’. Eventually I got to free will. But I don’t know, it took me ten years, fifteen years.
Interesting! And in regards to the rational and irrational choice, do you think that they are always determined by a person’s moral, maybe religious beliefs, hidden interests even, or stresses? Or even something else? It must be highly subjective right?
Well, all of that sort of thing enters into it. I mean, a simple way to think about it is, you get to a point where you’re thinking about what would be best to do. Maybe go on a diet, or start an exercise routine or something like that. And you actually come to the view that it would be best to do it. And you come to that view on the basis that you care about, believe, and so on. So, we can think about the things you desire, or your motivations let’s say. What might happen is that you rank them like you desire for good health higher than your desire to relax. But those desires actually have causal powers of their own. They have strengths. And the strengths of your desire might not line up with your ranking of it. Although you rank good health higher than relaxing, it may be the relaxing desire that’s stronger than the good health desire. And that could get you just not to start your exercise routine. And then what you need to do, I mean if you are in that kind of bind, is to figure out if there is something you can do to reverse the balance of those desires. This new self control project is about that kind of thing.
Okay! And in regards to a larger question, do you think that with the breadth of work that Plato covered and obviously the way he is taught and revered today, he was brilliant in his time… might anybody in current day’s philosophy be revered in the same way a couple of centuries from now?
Oh, as Plato and Aristotle were? Um, wow! You know… that sort of thing really hasn’t happened in the last couple hundred years, that somebody has risen to the heights of Plato and Aristotle. So, just based on you know what happened in the last couple of hundred years, well maybe this will never happen again. But then you wonder, “well why might that be?”. Well, if you go way back Plato and Aristotle, there was some primitive science, there was some mathematics and there was philosophy. So, philosophers had a heck of a lot to do, because the various sciences hadn’t really developed yet. But now, things are much more specialised and philosophers have less to do. Because a lot of the things philosophers used to write about are now subjects for scientific investigation. So maybe that’s part of the reason why we’ll never have another Plato or Aristotle.
Sure. A lot more things nowadays… well, science is fact until proven otherwise, but it’s based on scientific evidence I guess. So it’s very true that things were completely different in Plato’s time’s in terms of levels of understanding. It reduces a lot of questions you need to cover, I guess!
(Laughing). It does. So, we don’t need to be as sweeping as those guys were.
I also really like a quote actually, that you are “officially agnostic about the truth”, and that you have a wide ranging openness, even though you lean a certain way or believe certain things, that you are very open to the contrary. Would you say that’s a popular stance within the philosophy world these days, or would people be more hardline and you are more on an outlier in that sense?
Yeah. No, I’m definitely an outlier. When people tend to do in philosophy is stake out a position and then defend it to the hilt. And my concern often is just to advance the discussion on the topic. You know, sometimes just by saying what the main problems are for the different competing views. And offering solutions to those problems to the different competing camps. At least the camps that are competing have a reasonable chance of succeeding. So that’s my approach. What I’m aiming for is progress, and not necessarily me always having the right view and everybody who disagrees with me being wrong. Philosophy tends to be combative in that way. I think we make more progress my way.
Sure. It’s almost like you’ve removed the ego from the whole growth of thought, which I guess some people get caught up with when they study something very deeply and form a strong opinion. It’s hard to reverse it.
Yeah, it is. And um, you know, what I think about in that connection too, and I say this to audiences when I give talks… “Okay well, take something like free will, and we have all these different positions about what free will means, and whether we have it or not”, and a lot of those positions have been around for a great many years. And I say things like, “Oh jeez, well if this guys argument were that good everybody would agree with it, right?”. But hardly anybody does, so we’re all over the map. So how can we get some consensus about what the problems are maybe find ways to solve them. That’s my sort of agenda. It’s worked out well for me, and I do this not only in theory but I’m also directing now my second big science and philosophy forum. These are four-and-a-half million dollar grants that we get. And we get lots of philosophers and scientists to work together, design experiments together. And we’re making progress.
Yeah, I was reading about the ‘Big Questions on Free Will’ project and I was wondering what it’s like to work with people from all the different camps, and do people get tired with never having a definitive answer to some of the questions? Because you are both arguing either side, but at a certain point it doesn’t move much further?
Yeah. Well, actually I really enjoyed it a lot. That project started at the beginning of 2010 and ended at the end of 2013. So it hasn’t been over long. What you can do there when you have scientists and philosophers working together, is target specific smaller questions and actually make some real progress on the smaller questions. So, let me give you one example of what I mean. There was a set of experiments done in the 80’s that actually started this sort of movement in neuroscience claiming that there is no free will. I can describe the experiment to you. Yeah, why don’t I just do that? Because if I don’t give the example this won’t make a lot of sense.
So here’s the experiment. What you do is subjects have the task of flexing their wrist whenever they want. And then after they are supposed to report where the spot was on a very fast clock – it makes a complete revolution in two and a half seconds – where the clock was when they first felt the urge to flex, or felt the will to flex. The neuroscientists are taking EEG readings from the scalp and they are taking readings from the wrist muscle. And what they discover under certain conditions, is that about 550 milliseconds before the muscle moves, so a little over half a second,there’s a marked increase in electrical conductivity on the scalp. But the average time of the first reported awareness of the intention or whatever to flex, is about 200 milliseconds before the muscle does its movement. So what this scientist inferred, his name was Benjamin Libits, it’s really interesting work, what he inferred was that the brain made the decision about 350 milliseconds before the person became aware of it. What was going on was that your brain was unconsciously deciding to flex now 200 milliseconds before becoming aware of the decision made. Now Libit actually thought there was a little room for free will in there, and the thought was that once you become conscious of the urge or decision or whatever, you can veto it, or you can let it ride. And then what he did was to generalise from his apparent findings in this highly constrained kind of case, in the case of all decisions it said we make all of our decisions unconsciously. Which sounds like, you know, bad news for free will.
Well, ok, so he did this experiment using EEG, which is a good technology, but these days we have better technologies. Some people are using it and doing Libit style studies and they can support his no-free-will view. You can also use depth electrodes, which you can use on epilepsy patients who have open skulls for diagnostic purposes. Sometimes they agree to participate in these experiments and you can measure directly from the brain signals going on. So we have some of our science teams doing this kind of work to test to see how plausible it was that decisions are actually being made that early. As opposed to something pre-decisional which may eventually lead to a decision. So, you know, we’ve made some progress on that. I think our best evidence now, is that if a decision is actually made in situations, it is made about the time of subjects say they first became aware of their urge or whatever. That it’s pretty close to 200 milliseconds to when the muscle first starts moving, and not as far back as half a second.
Okay. So the argument almost comes down to ‘at what point does free will come into play, or not?’
Yeah, that’s true. And actually, theoretically what is interesting is the suggestion or generalisation of something really inferred from an apparent finding in a case like this where the subjects are not supposed to reason about when to flex. And when nothing hangs on what decision is made. So flexing just now as opposed to flexing maybe 10 milliseconds later… there’s nothing that hangs on it. There’s no conscious reasoning going into the so-called decision making and the decisions are arbitrary. Then you wonder ‘well how much does that kind of decision have to do with one about an important moral or practical matter?’, that you struggle over for a long time and finally come down one way or the other. It looks like there’s not really much of a connection at all but now which kind of decision does free will go with? You might think it is with the important decisions about moral or important practical matters. There’s that too. I mean there’s theoretical work to be done and there is scientific work to be done.
Sure, that’s a really interesting point.And say if the hypothesis that free will does not exist was proven true, do you think that would have any effect on life and humanity or is it the whole thing of determinism that it could not have any effect anyway, that it couldn’t change anything one way or the other? That we might just be along for the ride if determinism is proven true for example?
Yeah, okay. Now that’s a complicated question. I do have an answer but it’s got some different parts (laughing). Soooo, it’s partly going to depend on what we mean by free will when we are assuming or supposing that when it’s proved that there is no free will. And I’ll get to that a little bit later. First I’ll start with a little data, because we actually have the data on what the news that you don’t have free will… what effect that has on people. The first study I know of, and I think the first study that was done on this, was done by a pair of social psychologists Kathleen Vox and Jonathan Schooler. They divided their subjects into three groups and one group read text saying that there is no free will. Actual stuff by a scientist saying that there is no free will. And one group read neutral passages. And one group read passages supporting the idea that we have free will. What they wanted to see was what effect this type of news has on behaviour. The next task for people in the study was supposedly to take a math quiz, and they were told that the programmer screwed up, so that if they didn’t press the space-bar right after the question showed up that the answer would show up right on the screen, which means of course that they could cheat. And what they discovered is that the people who saw the no-free-will news cheated significantly more often than the other two groups. So I think a version of this study they get a dollar for every correct answer. So by cheating you are also in effect stealing and the people of the no-free-will passages steal significantly more often than the other two groups.
My friend Roy Baumeister, here at Florida State, did a similar study but he was testing for aggressiveness or aggression means we should say. And so, he had two groups of subjects, one was primed with sentences denying there is free will, and the other with neutral sentences. And then their next task was to serve snacks to people who were about to come into the room. And they were told two things about these people: They have to eat everything you put on their plate and they have all indicated that they really hate spicy food. One of the snack options was a jar of salsa labeled ‘super hot’, and the subjects who read the no-free-will passages doled out way more of the spicy salsa than the others. So the news that they had no free will increased aggressive behaviour.
So now, what’s going on there, you ask yourself. And one hypothesis is this: Well, their confidence in free will has been lowered by what they read, and they are thinking either consciously or unconsciously ‘hey, no free will, I guess you can’t blame me for what I do’, and then they cheat and steal and behave aggressively. So, if we are asking about the real world and what the effect that we don’t have free will would have on people, well here is evidence that it would increase misbehaviour.
Now, then we get back to another part of this puzzle. How do we understand free will? Imagine that you told people, ‘well look, you know what, free will really means the same as supernatural powers, powers to break laws of nature, say, and they say ‘we don’t have any of that’. Well, most people might not be bothered by that news, because they never thought they had supernatural powers. But now suppose you told people, ‘well free will is really just the ability to control your impulses, to do what you judge best, to improve yourself should you judge that that would be a good thing to do’, that kind of down-to-earth thing, then you say ‘you don’t have any of that’… Yeah I figure that would probably have the effect that people behave less well, that they don’t try to improve themselves, they just fall in a rut.
And there is a kind of practical problem about this too. There are a lot of news reports saying that science has shown that there is no free will, but it rarely happens in one of these news reports that the reader is told what is meant by free will. So readers are going to understand free will as they ordinarily do, and people are going to understand it in a down-to-earth way are going to think, ‘jeez, I don’t even have that!’. You know, and that could be depressive.
Yeah! It’s kind of again, are there some things we have free will over and others we don’t? And even an extension of that is opinions, right? Because everyone’s opinions are influenced by everyone else, things that came before them, the state of the world as they know it, the universe as it is right now, right? Yet people often think their opinions are their own, when a lot of times they are not.
Right, so that brings us back to the determinism part of your question. Now here I think we need to be careful. The way philosophers understand determinism is basically the way it is understood in physics. So the idea is this: That a complete description of the state of the universe at any point in time, together with a complete list of all the laws of nature, would entail all of the true stuff of that universe. That’s what determinism would amount to. A way to illustrate it is to imagine you have super intelligence, knew all the laws of nature, and knew the state of the universe, that being could deduce infallibly from what it knows about that, everything that will ever happen. That’s not to say that there is a force out there pushing people around, making people do things. It is just to say that the universe is organized in this way.
Well, there is a school of philosophy, compatibilism, that holds that determinism understood that way is consistent with free will. So the universe could be that way and people could have free will anyway. Now, that’s always puzzling to people when I say it. But that’s because what they mean by determinism isn’t precisely this thing that I’m talking about. So compatibilism is one of the views that I leave open.
You know, then there is another school of thought ‘no, but that’s how things are’, that really because everything you do is already in the cards you don’t have free will. Now, you don’t have free will. You need some kind of flexibility. You need to remember to be such that there are different possibilities open to you in a kind of deep way. One way to illustrate it is: Imagine you could rewind the universe the way you rewind a dvd, and we get to this point in the universe and here I am and I have this cup of coffee on my desk and I’m thinking about taking a sip or maybe not. Here, in the actual universe, what I do is take a sip. Now imagine that we just rewind things one second, don’t change anything and play it forward again. Well if I had the kind of flexibility we are talking about now then even though everything was the same in the entire universe up until then, something else could have happened now, like I decide not to take a sip. So some people say you need that kind of flexibility for free will, and I definitely leave that one open too.
And then you know, you have empirical questions like ‘does the brain work in this flexible kind of way?’, and at present we just can’t do the tests that would tell us one way or the other. It might! And it might not.
Do you think some of the answers in the future are going to come down to neurological science and physiology and biology, and these kinds of things that reveal more about the ways the human body works? Or not just humans, but animals and all nature?
Yeah, and I think scientists are already working on that. I think they are certainly making claims about free will based on their results, and yeh I think the more we learn about the brain the better we’ll be able to do certain kinds of philosophy.
I had read about the concept that you can choose to catch a ball, but you don’t necessarily choose to catch a cold, and that’s kind of related to the nature side of it, that some of our actions may not be our own actions, if we think about parasites for example. That you can control animals, and you can control much human behaviour sometimes too, you know? So in that case, perceived free will in some cases might actually be caused by a parasite!
Yeah, right right right. That’s another point that was part of your original question, that I wanted to break apart the answer. So, I don’t think of free will as an all-or-nothing thing, something that you have an use all the time or don’t have and never use. So, for example, I don’t know, take nicotine addicts. Might not have a lot of free will about whether they smoke, but they might have quite a bit of free will regarding how often they work, what they eat, what kind of movies they go see, right? So free will could be like that. It could be more of a diverse segment. It isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing power. As a right, and definitely our decisions can be influenced by things we don’t realise are influencing them.
Oh! There is this nice study done with pleasant smells. So, you get a bunch of subjects, you have them in a mall, some of the subjects go to sit around or whatever and there are these nice smells in the air, and some of the subjects go to neutral smelling places and then you have your confederate go ask people for change for a dollar. And people who are in the presence of pleasant smells are much more cooperative about giving change for a dollar than the other people are. So the smell is influencing their behaviour, making it nicer than it might be. And of course, nobody is thinking ‘Oh it smells good so I should help the guy out’, right? So it’s an unconscious influence.
Yeah! And there is study after study like this. So yeah, we are definitely influenced a lot by things we don’t think are influencing us. But even that doesn’t shut down free will entirely, it just makes it one among the forces that there are.
Sure! Got it, interesting. And then in relation to tying religion into it, to science and philosophy, do you think that something like Buddhist philosophy for example might lead us down a more humane path. Guiding us to tune into our intuition, to be considerate of others when making choices, and these kinds of things. So that a person’s religious or spiritual or worldly beliefs factor in a lot to making decisions too, right?
Yeah, yeah I agree. Our religious beliefs have a big effect on what we decide and how we behave. As far as that goes, I mean I’m agnostic about the religion thing too, about God. But um, a friendlier God with a friendlier moral servitude is the kind of God I would believe in if I believed in God. Religion can generate serious problems too. So, I think it’s going to be the moral code that’s built into the religion that will matter the most for practical reasons. And the healthier it is, the more compassionate it is, the better off everybody would be.
Do you think it is a kind of mental awareness that people need, in order to be able to reconcile their passions against their behaviours, to be able to live in a positive way?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, one thing that really does help is just thoughtfulness to begin with. You might wonder, ‘hey, why do I do the things I do, and why do I do these things rather than other things?’. That kind of thought could lead you next to think, ‘hey, how could my life be better? Could I change things to make it better?’. Once you start being reflective in this kind of way I think, depending on your circumstances, it doesn’t take long to get to the point where you are asking ‘and how can I make other people’s lives better too?’. Once you’re there you are starting to think of everyone as on a par, as thinking of the world as a place that you can have an impact on. Now you know, you need to have some advantages to do that. You can’t be absolutely poor and struggling. I mean, if you are you have to worry about yourself, and if you have a family about them. And you can get past all that. Religion can get you past it, but so can philosophy.
Sure! And being a philosophy student all your life really, has that always led you to be an introspective person on a personal level too?
Yeah, I think so. Except when I am too busy trying to do the things that I’ve agreed to do. But yeah when I have time, and I think it’s useful too because sometimes I have the option to detect maybe things that I could do better, or some things I’m doing that I shouldn’t do as much, or whatever?
And is that something you try to encourage your students to do too? It’s kind of a way of living, isn’t it, to be so aware and reflective on a continual basis if you want to have a better life?
Yeah, I do, I do encourage them to do it. It’s a nice neutral method too. I’m not telling them one thing is better than another, but I’m saying you figure out what you care about and then if you are reflective enough you have a better chance to achieve it.
Sure. And on a personal level, has it been an enjoyable career for you so far? Are you happy you took the route to be a philosophy lecturer and author?
Yeah! I really do like it. I started off teaching at a liberal arts college in North Carolina. It was a beautiful place. Really bright undergrads. I loved it. I was there for twenty-one years. And you know, we didn’t have a grad program, so I wasn’t directing dissertations or any of that. And then because we had no grad program I was also doing all the grading of student work. So I guess I was mainly a teacher though I ended up publishing a bunch of stuff. And then I switched over to the PhD program where I am now, been here since 2000. So, I have an endowed share so part of the agreement was that the teaching course would be light, once course a semester, and I would spend more time writing and flying around the world giving lectures, which is good for FSU, it’s good for its reputation. Yeah, and I like that too! I fly maybe 80,000 miles per year, give lectures in lots of interesting places, and yeah it’s exciting, it’s fun! I love writing, and I love reading. And not just philosophy, but science. I really do love science a lot.
That sounds great! And have you learned any key life lessons along the way? Have your thoughts ever changed in a radical way or anything like that? Or any key reflections on life?
You know, I don’t know that they’ve changed radically, but over time I have come to believe that each of us really can make the world a better place. You know, it’s not hopeless. Yeah, that’s something I try to put into practice more than I did when I was young. Of course, when I was young I was one of those poor struggling people. My first kid was born when I was nineteen, so I was still in college. I was working three jobs and going through college. So then I wasn’t so much thinking about making the world a better place. It was more surviving and giving my wife something.
That’s very interesting, because I was going to ask what you think might be one of the biggest misconceptions people might have about you or other philosophy professors. You kind of think about philosophy professors as being somebody who thinks about the big questions and it seems like they have time on their hands. But obviously you didn’t back when you were nineteen, so that’s quite amazing really.
No, I didn’t. And I didn’t actually for many years. When I was a grad student I was doing a lot of grading of essays and I was doing my own work writing a dissertation, and raising a family. So even then I didn’t. I was probably more work oriented and maybe even self centered back then because it seemed necessary. Now… now I do a ton of work. I work seven days a week, so I do a lot of work. But that still leaves plenty of time for reflection
Sure. What would you say have been the proudest moments of your career to date?
Oh, I don’t know. I try not to think about what I’ve accomplished and whether I should be proud of it. I just try to think about what am I going to do next (laughing). Probably the best things I’ve done are… well, directing that last Big Questions on Free Will grant, that was a real service I think to a couple of professions. And I like my books, I like them a lot. Sometimes people ask me what my best book is. One of my books recently won a prize for ‘the best book in the analytic tradition published in the last five years by the American Philosophical Association in any of one of three major areas of philosophy’, so you know, that sounds pretty good. That book was my first book on free will in science. But I think my best book is maybe an older book of mine, ‘Autonomous Agents’ published in ‘95. I guess I could say I’m proud of those books, but I really try not to think about it.
Do you try to impart any lessons on your kids, and that sort of thing, from your broad view of the world?
Yeah, my own kids, yeah. I have three. They’re all adult kids, and I never tried to push them in any direction as far as career path went, or whatever, but I did try to teach them to be reflective. That is, to think about what they want and to think about whether it’s reasonable to want what they want, whether they should adjust it. And about the importance of planning, and well… my daughter is an artist and she is a wonderful artist, she’s a great painter. If she were to plan let’s say a little bit more than she does (laughing), she might hear this, you know… she could get more done and it would make her even better. So to plan is important. And then you know, yeah, just the normal stuff, all people are people. They all deserve to be treated with respect and so on.
Brilliant. Thanks a million for covering all the topics, even if it were slightly brief on my part. Just to sum up, I love your quote, “I’m realistic about deep complicated issues that worry extremely bright people for a couple of thousand years. It leaves everything open really”. It’s brilliant. Who know’s what’s going to happen in the next couple of thousand years as well! Thanks a lot Al.
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