Alfred Mele on Neuroscience and Free Will

This is a great article I ran across just now by a prominent philosopher in the free will debate on whether neuroscience has disproven free will.  The answer: no.  Check it out for yourself and let me know what you think!


6 thoughts on “Alfred Mele on Neuroscience and Free Will

  1. I haven’t read his book but the article doesn’t try to explain why the behavior of people with brain injury is altered. Which proves that there is no freewill.

    1. Sadly, I haven’t read the book either. Nonetheless, you are quite correct in that his article does not focus on brain injury (probably so that the article would be brief or he doesn’t even seen it as being proposed as a challenge). Nonetheless, would you mind expanding upon how the behavior of people being altered due to brain injury proves there is no free will?

      (As a side note, you might find the following article on Phinehas Gage interesting:

      1. I think I have read that article. But it only talks about how brain injured patients still are happy/sad for similar reasons as normal people.

        Anyway, brain injury can drastically alter behavior. If there was a freewill, then how does that justify it? Because thoughts lead to behavior. If there is no freewill of thoughts, then we don’t have control over our behavior either.

      2. Well I’m not really understanding your argument, but one of your key premises seems to be “because thoughts lead to behavior.” Now, that can be read in two ways: (i) thoughts determine behavior or (ii) thoughts influence behavior. As to (i), that itself is a debated point and far from proven but even if we assume it is true, that wouldn’t be inconsistent with compatibilism. As to (ii), that clearly is compatible with free will since that is compatible with libertarian freedom. So I’m not sure how this premise leads to a desired conclusion.

        But maybe “if there is no freewill [sic] of thoughts, then we don’t have control over our behavior either” is key. But suppose the following. I do not have any brain injuries that has changed my behavior and/or thoughts and yet let’s assume I have no free will over the thoughts I have. That’s perfectly consistent with free will since, simply put, free will doesn’t say anything about our thoughts as such but about our actions. So if compatibilism is true, then determinism does not undercut free will about our actions (and maybe not even thoughts!); if libertarianism is true, then I am either the source of my actions (agent libertarian freedom) or there is, at the very least, indeterminism in my actions (event libertarian freedom) in which case neither of those undercut my free will with regards to actions.

        So I just fail to see your argument nor how it is sound.


  2. The fact that brain injuries alter our ability to decide freely doesn’t prove anything. It’s like saying that people without legs prove that mankind is not per se able to walk. The article is absolutely right in pointing a defect in proposed experiment protocoles: asking people to act spontaneously is exactly opposed to asking them to act freely. Under this respect Kant’s moral imperative would fit better to evaluate what free can mean, and this would result in the value of a computation. However, humans depend in their everyday life on lots of unconscious processes, like breathing. Simone de Beauvoir for example has shown brilliantly how species takes control over individuals through sexuality. So we know that we do not act always freely, the problem is to know wether we can at least in some special cases. On the other hand, the fact that part of the computations yielding a decision are unconscious does only show that humans are not aware of all the processes engaged in thinking. Because free will is an habitus, the values (instinct, desires, symbols, beliefs, knowledge, etc.) that are implied in our computations to act are made by previous decisions, they constitute what John Searle calls contextual or background information. To answer the question of free will can’t be made without looking at the results of our actions. A good way to do this is to consider a general law of matter that impacts everything and everyone: entropy. Free will then could be taken in this perspective as our ability to postpone the effects of this law. We discover that as individuals are more or less efficient in escaping this pressure, mankind as a whole seems to reenforce it more and more (wars, climate change, etc.): free will is thus in a bad situation from a generic perspective. This means that the amount of free will that we are able to deploy individually is not sufficient to ensure that mankind in itself enjoys this disposition (and we know that the number of people puzzled by this question is also extremely restricted in comparison with the amount of human beings on this planet, another good reason to do philosophy). From there however, Kant will not be of great help: his moral imperative helps us understand freedom but reveals vain in everyday use. Who can predict that the rule of his action is universally appropriate? I would argue that some kind of neutral utilitarianism – i.e. deprived of any metaphysical assumptions – would be the best approach to answer this new question: how could we do to express the free will that we know we have individually – just quit smoking if you doubt – at the level of our species?

    1. I disagree with parts of your post, but thanks nonetheless for sharing your thoughts. A mention of both an analytic and continental philosopher is always worth points in my book.

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