Alfred R. Mele’s recent article on free will in The Chronicle of Higher Education is short and to the point. First, Mele argues that most people do not have a conception of free will that involves anything obviously spooky, such as a non-physical soul. Second, he argues that arguments against free will that rely on Libet-style experiments are inconclusive. He may be right on both points, but this falls well short of vindicating free will (to be fair to him, all he concludes is that it’s too early to bet the farm on free will’s non-existence … a rather weak claim).
As to the first point, Mele refers to a simple study that he conducted (he suggests that there were more, but only offers us the one):
In one, I invited participants to imagine a scenario in which scientists had proved that everything in the universe is physical and that what we refer to as a “mind” is actually a brain at work. In this scenario, a man sees a $20 bill fall from a stranger’s pocket, considers returning it, and decides to keep it. Asked whether he had free will when he made that decision, 73 percent answer yes. This study suggests that a majority of people do not see having a nonphysical mind or soul as a requirement for free will.
Just a few points about this. First, even as reported only 73 per cent of participants in the study thought that free will is compatible with physicalism – that seems to be the essence of what they were asked. That’s an overwhelming majority, no doubt, but the fact remains that 27 per cent of people in the study apparently thought that free will is not compatible with physicalism. Furthermore, we are told nothing to assure us that the participants were a random sample of the population (any population you might consider relevant, whether it be the population of the local community where the study was conducted, the population of, say, the US, or the population of the English-speaking world). Was the study biased, for example, towards highly educated people, or more secular people, who might be more accepting of physicalism than the general population?
Thus, the study is suggestive, but it does not, at least as it’s reported, prove a great deal. It suggests that many people, perhaps a majority, think that free will is compatible with physicalism, and perhaps that it’s compatible with causal determinism (if we make an assumption that the two ideas tend to be closely linked in people’s minds). That’s important, in that the study at least provides data casting doubt on the view that “free will” just means, in the English language, something … well, something incompatible with physicalism and determinism. It provides one set of data, albeit not necessarily a very reliable one, that many people actually have a much more mundane conception of free will.
However, we don’t know enough to draw strong, specific conclusions about how the participants in the study approached the question they were asked. Did they answer quickly and intuitively, or did they think about it in a more theoretical way? Perhaps some thought it was sufficient that the person not handing back the $20 was able to deliberate, was not externally impeded or coerced, etc. Perhaps some thought it enough that nothing described in the scenario implied the truth of anything like fatalism (it is arguable that this is the issue that really bugs the folk … both now and historically). Perhaps, for all we know, the participants, or many of them, had rather confused conceptions of free will, involving a jumble of ideas, but at least the majority of them did not have a clear conception that “free will” just means (in part) the actions or deliberations of some kind of spooky non-material thing.
Furthermore, we should ask about the arguments of writers who insist that the meaning of “free will” – what the expression actually conveys in ordinary use in the English language – is the deliberation of some sort of non-material thing whose activity transcends any natural order of causation. How is this semantic claim grounded? What evidence do we have for it? Perhaps Mele’s little experiment is not decisive against the people who define “free will” in such ways, but their semantic claim doesn’t seem to have any more solid grounding. On the contrary, it generally seems to be an intuition based on the life experience of those making the claim, but that is hardly scientific and others may have very different life experiences. At the most it relies on highly indirect evidence, such as evidence that the folk tend to have a dualist theory of mind.
As for Mele’s point about how to interpret Libet-type experiments, this is an area where I hesitate to get involved. I don’t want to pretend to expertise that I lack. Still, I’ve never been convinced that the experiments prove much at all, and not for the sorts of reasons that Mele gives. While Mele argues about how to interpret the data, I wonder whether he isn’t chasing a mirage here. Even if he is correct about everything else, his arguments only seem to be relevant if he is trying to defend a position that we make decisions, or perhaps final decisions, entirely consciously – or at least that this happens in important cases. But, Libet aside, is that even remotely like the experience we actually have? While agonising conscious deliberations may play some kind of important role in reaching some of our decisions on difficult issues, we never seem to reach these decisions in an entirely conscious way.
Not surprisingly, therefore, courtroom advocates (barristers and trial lawyers) are trained to immerse themselves in the detailed evidence relating to a case, but not to think they can work out the case theory consciously. At least that’s my experience: they are told, in effect, to let the unconscious mind do the creative work, or much of it. I doubt that it’s different for other professions, irrespective of what practitioners are explicitly taught.
The way we reach factual conclusions, arrive at theories and understandings, make decisions about what to do next, and do so on, will generally, at some stage, involve an Aha! point (or more than one) where the answer (or some aspect of it) seems to “come to us” from the unconscious parts of our minds. Not only is this the actual phenomenology of decision-making, there are reasons to question whether we can coherently imagine or describe a situation in which every aspect of our decision-making is fully conscious – just try to do so! I defy you to. (Neil Levy has a 2005 article questioning whether the idea is even conceptually coherent, though I don’t know whether it represents his current view.)
A suitably deflated concept of free will may match up with the ideas of the folk, at least in a rough way, and may also be instantiated in the real world – e.g. it may be enough that fatalism is not true and/or that we are often able to make uncoerced decisions after an adequate time for deliberation (which may, in part, be conscious). If these are the sorts of things that the folk, or many of them, primarily have in mind when they think they have free will, then free will is not only compatible with physicalism and determinism. It also seems compatible with the role that is played by the unconscious mind. On the other hand, it may not be compatible with the role played by the unconscious mind if we always (or even typically) have unconscious desires, fears, etc., that are at odds with our consciously held values, and which we’d experience as alien if we knew about them.
In any event, no matter how much we fence and skirmish over how to interpret the Libet data, we are not going to be able to defend free will unless we have a conception of free will that allows a large role for the unconscious mind in our decision-making processes.