Researching Free Will

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The John Templeton Foundation has just awarded $4.4 million to Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele to research the question: Do we have free will? As the press release explains:

The project, "Free Will: Human and Divine — Empirical and Philosophical Explorations," is not quite as esoteric as the topic might suggest. For thousands of years the question of free will was strictly in the domain of philosophers and theologians. But in recent years, some neuroscientists have been producing data they claim shows that the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises. If true, conscious control over action — a necessary condition of free will — is simply impossible. Likewise, some social psychologists believe that unconscious processes, in tandem with environmental conditions, control behavior and that our conscious choices do not.

Mele, a prolific scholar whose most recent book, "Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will" (Oxford University Press, 2009), was an effort to debunk those claims, falls clearly in the pro-free will camp. But he acknowledges that he doesn't have the answers, and he is open to different interpretations of free will for different disciplines. His goal is that scientists, philosophers and theologians will be closer to the truth when this project is complete in 2013.

"What I want to do is make significant progress on discovering whether we do or don't have free will," Mele said. "It's not as if in four years, we are going to know. But I want to push us along the way so that we can speed up our understanding of all of this."

Personally, I am determined to reject the idea of contra-causal free will. However, the research results could have signficant societal consequences:

"If we eventually discover that we don't have free will, the news will come out and we can predict that people's behavior will get worse as a consequence," Mele said. "We should have plans in place for how to deal with that news."

His prediction about the degeneration of people's behavior is based on experiments in which psychologists induced a disbelief in free will among study participants to find out how that disbelief would affect their behavior. It wasn't pretty: When participants believed they had no control over their actions — and therefore presumably felt they were not responsible for their behavior — they cheated and were more aggressive.

But as I explained in my column, "Prozac Justice," it will be necessary to hold all doubters and believers in free will responsible for their actions. For more on the free will versus determinism debate, see also my interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett, "Pulling Our Own Strings."

Disclosure: I have received small grants from the Templeton Foundation in the past for reviewing proposals and for research.