Since the beginning of time, philosophers, scientists and theologians have sought to find out whether human beings have free will or whether other forces are at work to control our actions, decisions and choices.
Now, Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele has been awarded a $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to get to the bottom of this question for the ages. Mele, the William H. and Lucyle Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, will oversee a four-year project to improve understanding of free will in philosophy, religion and science.
“This is an extraordinarily large award in the humanities, which speaks volumes about Al Mele’s worldwide reputation as a scholar, the excitement provoked by his newest ideas, and the Templeton Foundation’s commitment to the highest standards of creativity in ideas and rigor in scholarship,” said Joseph Travis, dean of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “An award of this magnitude and visibility puts our Department of Philosophy, and Florida State, in a very bright international spotlight.”
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.”
The ramifications could have significant societal impacts.
“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.
Mele will oversee the project’s multipronged approach. About $3.4 million of the grant money will be distributed to researchers around the world who submit proposals to study the science, conceptual underpinnings and theology of free will. The grant money also will be used to fund a position in the philosophy department to be filled annually for the next three years by a postdoctoral scholar with a special interest in free will. Research colloquia will be held annually for three years beginning in 2011, and Mele will direct a two-week summer seminar at Florida State in 2012. In addition, as many as 10 prizes of $3,000 each will be awarded to authors of essays on free will published in the popular venues.
The project was initiated by the John Templeton Foundation Vice President for Philosophy and Theology Michael J. Murray, who sought Mele’s help in shaping the proposal before naming him the project’s principal investigator. Murray came to the right place: Mele is considered the most eminent authority on the subject and is the primary reason why the Philosophical Gourmet Report has ranked Florida State’s philosophy department No.1 in the world when it comes to the study of philosophy of action, which includes free will.
“The notion of free will is deeply embedded in our self-conception as moral human agents,” Murray said. “At the John Templeton Foundation, we are very pleased that Florida State has taken the lead to advance research on this emerging interdisciplinary topic, one that we are confident will more deeply inform our understanding of the emerging empirical data, as well as of realties both human and divine.”
The John Templeton Foundation (www.templeton.org) serves as a philanthropic catalyst for research relating to what scientists and philosophers call the Big Questions. It supports work at the world’s top universities in such fields as theoretical physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and social science relating to love, forgiveness, creativity, purpose, and the nature and origin of religious belief. It also seeks to stimulate new thinking about wealth creation in the developing world, character education in schools and universities, and programs for cultivating the talents of gifted children.