Templeton Foundation Grant on Free Will

March 24, 2010
Posted by Administrator

We interviewed Dr. Alfred R. Mele, Director of the new John Templeton Foundation grant program, “Big Questions in Free Will.” Mele is the William H. Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor at Florida State University. The purpose of the program is “to improve our understanding of free will in three spheres: science (especially neuroscience and social philosophy); philosophy; and theology.”

You are a noteworthy contributor to discussions on free will, agency, rationality, consciousness, and philosophy of action. First, give us a summary about your own work and your perspective on free will. How did you get into this area? What do you find interesting about it?

I have some sense of the causal path that led to my deciding to tackle free will. My dissertation was entitled Aristotle’s Theory of Human Motivation. During my first few years as an assistant professor, I thought I would devote my career to ancient Greek philosophy. But I soon got caught up in the issues in the philosophy of action that concerned Plato and Aristotle. My first book (Irrationality, 1987) is on weakness of will (or akrasia in Classical Greek), self-control, and self-deception; my point of departure on the first two topics was classical work on them. My second book, (Springs of Action, 1992) is a step toward the development of a general causal theory about how intentional actions are to be explained. Not long after I completed it, I came to believe that a theory of this kind might help improve our understanding of free action.

In my opinion, the main competing theories about the concept of free will (or free action) have been developed much more thoroughly than was the case even fifteen years ago, and we have a much clearer view of the main problems for each position and interesting proposed resolutions of some of those problems. Perhaps the dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists will persist as long as philosophy does, but progress on an issue doesn’t require universal agreement about it. My own tack – both in Autonomous Agents (1995) and in Free Will and Luck (2006) – has included developing two overlapping conceptions of free will: one for compatibilists and the other for incompatibilists. Given my incompatibilist conception, whether any human being ever acts freely is a challenging question. The answer depends on, among other things, whether human brains are suitably indeterministic. And who knows what future neuroscience may turn up? If my compatibilist conception of free will is correct, it is a good bet that there is a lot of free action.

What do you see as some prevailing trends (say, within the last 10 to 15 years) between scientific, philosophical, and theological discussions on free will?

One trend in scientific work on free will is skepticism about its existence. Each of the following claims has been defended in the scientific literature on free will and consciousness in the last few years (and earlier): your brain routinely decides what you will do before you become conscious of its decision; there is only a 100 millisecond window of opportunity for free will, and all it can do is veto conscious decisions, intentions, or urges; intentions never play a role in producing corresponding actions; and free will is an illusion. In Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will (2009), I take up each of these claims and I argue that the evidence offered to support them is sorely deficient. I also argue that there is strong empirical support for the thesis that some conscious decisions and intentions have a genuine place in causal explanations of corresponding actions.

Another trend in scientific work on free will is a backlash against the skeptical claims. Psychologist Roy Baumeister has been a strong critic of those claims.

In philosophical work on free will, one trend that I see is persistence. Compatibilists persist in replying to incompatibilist arguments and in developing their own positive views. Incompatibilists persist in developing arguments against compatibilism, and some incompatibilists continue to develop and defend positive libertarian views. Another trend is to investigate folk conceptions of free will by means of survey studies of the sort conducted by experimental philosophers. I see both trends as contributing to progress in understanding how to conceive of free will.

In the sphere of the theology of free will, I am an amateur. I teach an undergraduate course in the philosophy of religion on a regular basis, and in it I devote a very enjoyable block of time to issues about human free will and divine foreknowledge. But I have not published in this area, and I am not qualified to venture an opinion about trends. In this sphere, I see myself as a student; and I’m happy to learn.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the grant program from the Templeton Foundation? Who all is involved (and how) in the decision-making for any of the proposals?

I’m hoping that the grant will enable us to make much more progress on free will than would be made without it. In science, we hope to encourage studies that target free will more directly than much existing work in the science of free will does. In philosophy, we’ll encourage, among other things, development of improved models of free will; and the same goes for theology.

In each of the three areas, we’ll solicit letters of intent and then invite some of the letter writers to submit full proposals. Decisions about letters of intent and proposals will be made by five-person panels – different panels for different fields. A representative of the John Templeton Foundation and I will be on each panel. On this see the Big Questions in Free Will website: http://www.freewillandscience.com.

Can you give us a broad sweep of the four-year projects related to this program?

On this, see the “Timeline” section of the Big Questions in Free Will website: 

To what extent (if at all) should proposals be interdisciplinary or at least attentive to interdisciplinary issues?

We are especially encouraging interdisciplinary work in the science branch of the project.

For the grant program, are you intending to encourage a particular view of how science and religion (theology) or science and philosophy are to relate to each other?

We believe that work in each area should be informed by work in the other areas whenever that would be useful. We also believe that this will often be useful.

Are you more likely or less likely to seriously consider a proposal if the operating philosophical assumptions tend to support or reject a physicalistic view of free will? Are you more likely or less likely to seriously consider a proposal if the operating philosophical assumptions tend to support or reject a dualistic view of free will? Can you briefly elaborate?

“Assumptions” is a key word here. In this connection, it may be useful to quote something from FAQ portion on “conceptual underpinnings” grants on the Big Questions in Free Will website:

The Theoretical Underpinnings arm of the Big Questions in Free Will program does have a special interest in incompatibilist models of free will, including both developments and critiques of such models. Compatibilist critiques of incompatibilist models, views, and arguments will certainly be considered seriously. Proposals for projects that assume that compatibilism is true probably would not be competitive.

Such questions as “Is free will possible if substance dualism is true?” and “Is free will possible if physicalism is true?” are legitimate topics of investigation. A scholar might approach the first by assuming that dualism is true and the second by assuming that physicalism is true. But, of course, these assumptions apparently leave it open whether the answer is yes or no.

How do you think self-identified Christians or theists working in philosophy or philosophical theology can potentially contribute to work on free will for this program?

Some self-identified Christians are, of course, major figures in contemporary work on free will – for example, Tim O’Connor, Eleonore Stump, and Peter van Inwagen. Work of this caliber from members of the EPS would obviously be highly valued. For information on theology of free will projects, see the “theology of free will” grants section on the Big Questions in Free Will website.