Alfred Mele is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University and the author of two books on free will: Effective Intentions (2009) and Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, which is due out in October 2014. In a recent essay on Big Questions Online, Professor Mele defends, as “a definite possibility,” what he calls the ambitious view of free will: the view that when you freely choose between two options (let’s call them A and B), your past history and the laws of Nature do not determine your choice, which means that there is a real chance that you will choose A, and a real chance that you will choose B. On this ambitious view, while there may be a high probability that you will choose A over B, whether or not you actually do so is not settled until the moment when you actually make your decision.
The ambitious view of free will can be described as a libertarian account, in contrast with what Mele refers to as the modest view, which says 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.” The modest view is fully compatible with determinism, which makes it a rather unexciting version of free will: all of my choices might be pre-determined by my past history, even though nobody is forcing me to act the way I do. The ambitious view of free will challenges this dreary determinism.
Although he defends a libertarian conception of free will in his latest essay, Professor Mele rejects the notion that free will depends for its existence on the truth of substance dualism (the idea that each person has a non-physical soul that interacts with their body). On this point, I think he is correct. As I pointed out in a previous post, titled, Is free will dead?, there are Christians, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who firmly believe in free will but reject the doctrine of an immaterial soul. Such a view is tenable – for instance, someone might believe that human choices are irreducibly holistic acts carried out by the brain-as-a-whole, which can influence local events taking place in nerve cells when they process incoming signals. On this top-down view of causation, I do indeed cause my body to move, and nothing determines what I decide, since top-down causation is regarded as a fundamental feature of reality. Now, I happen to think that a materialistic account of the “self” is demonstrably false: as I’ve argued elsewhere, it is self-evident, from both introspection and the fact that we frequently share our ideas using spoken language, that our thoughts and free choices have an inherent meaning. However, bodily processes such as neuronal firings are not inherently meaningful – indeed, it would make no sense to describe these processes as meaning anything, in their own right. Hence it follows that a bodily action is incapable of embodying a free choice. Again, our mental concepts (such as the concept of a triangle) are abstract and universal, whereas the events occurring in our brains are concrete and particular; hence the former must be distinct from the latter. Nevertheless, the question of the truth or falsity of dualism – whether of the Cartesian or hylemorphic variety is inconsequential here – is logically separable from the question of whether we possess libertarian free will, or what Professor Mele refers to as “ambitious free will.” (For readers who are interested, I’ve described how I believe libertarian free will is possible on a dualistic account, here and here.)
The neuroscientific case against free will
In an essay for Big Questions Online titled, What Are the Implications of the Free Will Debate for Individuals and Society?, Professor Mele takes aim at a neuroscientific argument against free will which has received a lot of free press lately. The argument can be cast in the form of a syllogism containing three vital premises:
1. In various experiments, participants decide unconsciously.
2. Only consciously made decisions can be freely made.
3. The way participants decide in these experiments is the way people always decide.
From these premises, it follows that our decisions are always unconsciously decided, and hence never free.
Professor Mele summarizes the evidence for premise 1:
In some studies, this claim is based partly on EEG readings (electrical readings taken from the scalp). In others, fMRI data (about changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain) are used instead. In yet others, with people whose skulls are open for medical purposes, readings are taken directly from the brain. The other part of the evidence comes from participants’ reports on when they first became aware of their decisions. If the reports are accurate (which is disputed), the typical sequence of events is as follows: first, there is the brain activity the scientists focus on, then the participants become aware of decisions (or intentions or urges) to act, and then they act, flexing a wrist or pushing a button, for example.
Why laboratory experiments fail to rule out either modest or ambitious versions of free will
But as Professor Mele points out, the problem with this account is that “there is no good reason to believe that the early brain activity (measured in seconds with fMRI and in milliseconds in the other studies) is correlated with a decision that is made – unconsciously – at that time.” It’s quite possible that the actual decision itself is made at a later point in time. And in fact, patients in these experiments typically report that they are conscious of making a decision a mere two tenths of a second before their muscles move. By contrast, the brain activity measured in fMRI experiments occurs several seconds before this muscle movement begins. In short: the fMRI experiments are fully compatible with a modest version of free will, which presupposes only “the ability to make rational, informed, conscious decisions in the absence of undue force.”
Still, it might be objected, if an unconscious event occurring several seconds before I act determines the way in which I will move my body, doesn’t this at least rule out the existence of Mele’s “ambitious free will”? On the contrary, argues Mele, it leaves this version of free will very much intact:
In the fMRI study I mentioned, scientists were able to predict with 60% accuracy, about seven seconds in advance, which button a participant would press next. Obviously, this does not suggest that it was determined which button would be pressed seven seconds before the action… In the study using direct readings from the brain, experimenters were able to predict with 80% accuracy, within a window of a few hundred milliseconds, what time participants would identify as the moment at which they first became aware of their intention to click… These findings do not support determinism… Believers in ambitious free will thrive on probabilities of action, and that’s exactly what we find in these studies.
For the benefit of readers who are skeptical that a decision can be genuinely free even though it is highly probable, Professor Mele offers an excellent illustration in a 2012 interview with Richard Marshall, reporting for 3:AM magazine:
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 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.
Mele acknowledges that an observer could predict “with close to 100% accuracy” what he will try to do next time he buys a coach seat on a long flight. But that certainly doesn’t imply that his decision was made unconsciously. Nor does it imply that his decision was determined by prior circumstances. All it shows is that Mele displays a consistent preference for exit row seats whenever he boards a plane.
For his part, Mele thinks that “unconscious bias” is the most likely explanation for why the decisions of participants in laboratory experiments can be predicted several seconds in advance, with 60% accuracy. In a recent philosophical article, Mele is more specific: he suggests that Chun Siong Soon and colleagues, who conducted these experiments a few years ago (see Soon, C.S., M. Brass, H.J. Heinze, and J.D. Haynes, 2008, “Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain”, Nature Neuroscience 11: 543-545), “are more likely to have detected a slight unconscious bias toward pressing a particular button on the next go than an actual decision (or intention) to press that button.” This kind of bias is very familiar to stage magicians: it explains why, when people are asked to quickly think of a two-digit number between 1 and 100, with both digits odd and both digits different from each other, many will pick the number 37 (see also here). But the existence of such bias, in and of itself, fails to undermine libertarian free will. (I might also add that such the existence of such bias in our impulsive decisions has little bearing on the decisions we typically make, which involve using our reasoning to select a course of action in relation to a long-term goal – a topic which I’ll address below. Hence even if one were to argue that my choice of the number “37” is not truly free, this would fail to show that most of our everyday choices are not free.)
Finally, in a 2013 philosophical article, Professor Mele highlights another problem with an oft-cited study using direct readings from the brain, where experimenters reported that “a population of SMA [supplementary motor area] neurons is sufficient to predict in single trials the impending decision to move with accuracy greater than 80% already 700 ms [milliseconds] prior to subjects’ awareness” (p. 548) of their “urge” (p. 558) to press a key (Fried, I., R. Mukamel, and G. Kreiman, 2011, “Internally Generated Preactivation of Single Neurons in Human Medial Frontal Cortex Predicts Volition”, Neuron 69: 548-562). As the authors of the study acknowledge (pp. 552-3, 560), the subjects’ reports of exactly when they felt the urge to press the key may or may not be accurate. On a minimalist interpretation, all the study really demonstrates is “on the basis of activity in the SMA they [the researchers] can predict with greater than 80% accuracy what time a participant will report to be the time at which he was first aware of an urge to press 700 ms prior to the reported time.” But this laboratory finding, in and of itself, does not tell us about when the subjects’ decision to press the key was actually made.
So far, then, it appears that the laboratory experiments cited by determinists have failed to discredit the libertarian notion of free will.
Free will typically involves reasoning in relation to long-term goals
So much for the first premise of the neuroscientific argument against free will. Professor Mele does not contest the second premise, which states that only consciously made decisions can be called free choices. What about the third premise, which asserts that the way in which participants decide in these laboratory experiments is the way people always (or normally) decide? The problem here, as Professor Mele observes, is that in the experiments described above, “participants are instructed to be spontaneous rather than think about what to do.” For example, participants may be told to flex their right wrist, or press a button, or click a key on a keyboard, on impulse, as soon as they feel the urge to do so. In such an experimental set-up, “any decisions participants make about these simple actions are arbitrary.” Since these laboratory experiments exclude conscious reasoning at the outset and focus only on “here-and-now” decisions (e.g. whether or not to click a key), Mele contends that they have very little in common with the real-world decisions we typically make:
The instructions participants receive place conscious reasoning about what to do out of bounds. The experimental setting is very different from a situation in which you’re carefully weighing pros and cons before making a difficult decision – a decision about whether to change careers, for example, or about whether to ask for a divorce… At any rate, in light of salient differences between an arbitrary unreflective selection of a moment to act or a button to press, on the one hand, and a choice about a momentous matter made after painstaking conscious reflection, on the other, we can’t be confident that all decisions are made in the same way.
Professor Mele has a lot more to say on this theme in a recent philosophical article titled, Free Will and Neuroscience (Philosophic Exchange, Vol. 43 , Iss. 1, Art. 3), which I would recommend to readers who would like a more in-depth understanding of the issues at stake in the free-will dispute.
To sum up: ambitious free will remains an open possibility – a prospect which enthuses Professor Mele:
This is good news, both for individuals and for society. There is evidence that lowering people’s confidence in the existence of free will increases bad behavior – cheating, stealing, and aggressive behavior. And there is evidence that belief in free will promotes personal well-being. If free will is real, beneficial beliefs in it have the virtue of being true, and it’s always nice when goodness and truth are on the same side.
What do readers think?