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Free Will: An Opinionated Guide by Alfred R. Mele

Nikoo Aalabaf freely studies various ideas of free will.

Free Will: An Opinionated Guide by Alfred R. Mele (2022) explores arguments on free will while presenting the author’s own position on the subject. This book takes the reader on a journey to find out what free will is and whether it even exists. It’s meant to be understood by a wide audience, whether they’re familiar with philosophical argumentation or not. I found that this was the case for most of the book, although at points, some passages could have been explained in simpler terms.

Mele begins by explaining why people care about free will. He suggests that part of the answer could be found in the value we place on having significant control over our own actions. In addition, most people believe that there is a connection between free will and moral responsibility – implying that those without free will (such as animals) aren’t morally responsible for what they do, and so don’t deserve to be either praised or blamed for it.

The author proposes two concepts of free will, a ‘straight conception’ and a ‘mixed conception’. The straight conception is: “If sane, unmanipulated people consciously make a reasonable decision to do something on the basis of good information and no one is pressuring them, they freely decide to do that thing.” ( The book doesn’t seem to explain what is a ‘reasonable decision’.)

This conception assumes that these conditions are sufficient for a decision to be free. But let’s think about that: if a person is locked up in prison, do they lack free will? They still have some genuine choices, so they meet the straight conception’s conditions, but their freedom is, let’s say, severely limited. Mele responds to this by saying that some people would argue that what’s missing in the straight conception is a requirement that alternative decisions are open to the decision-maker. To account for this, the author explores the mixed conception. This says: “If sane, unmanipulated people consciously make a reasonable decision to do something on the basis of good information, no one is pressuring them, and they were able to make an alternative reasonable decision, in a sense of ‘able’ that requires deep openness, they freely decide to do that thing.” And if you’re wondering what ‘deep openness’ means, it’s the idea that more than one option is available to the person, given everything as it actually is at the time (moods, thoughts, feelings, as well as physical conditions). Mele believes that deep openness is necessary for free decision-making, and so is a necessary condition for free will.

I’d like to point out here that Mele uses the terms ‘free decision-making’ and ‘free will’ interchangeably. But is free decision-making the same as free will? If a person is in coma, for example, are they considered to have free will? From the point of view of the mixed conception, since there are no other options available to a person in coma, they have no free will at all. But is that true? If on the contrary we assume that a person in a coma does have free will, then it seems that there is a gap between having free will and taking action. So we can ask, is free will already inherent in human beings, or is it acquired through acting? And can free will be taken away from a person, by curtailing their ability to act? These are only some questions that merit further consideration, given the author’s views.

After introducing the straight and mixed conceptions, Mele investigates and challenges both conceptions using various thought experiments. He takes the reader on a journey to find out whether we could have free will in a deterministic universe. Mele asks us to imagine a universe where all the laws of nature fell into place shortly after the Big Bang. Some philosophers, he argues, maintain that free will can exist in such a deterministic universe. At the same time, he himself believes that there’s another way to think about laws of nature, which is as patterns that emerge over time. If the patterns of nature (and so its laws) evolve over time, could this make the world indeterministic? Or can we have deep openness in a deterministic world? Mele argues that a lot of people are inclined to believe that in a deterministic world they are forced to do what they do, but some will disagree.

How about thinking about a deterministic world with the capacity for free will in the following way? In a deterministic world, I am bound by the laws of nature – which means that if I decide to jump from a window, I know that I am bound to gravity pulling me down and me falling to the ground. At the same time, I also have the capacity to decide that I don’t want to fall and hit the ground when I jump. Therefore, I invent something that stops me from falling, such as a machine that bears me up against gravity. Can this capacity to see beyond what’s apparent as ‘laws of nature’ be called ‘free will’? In this example, the law of nature was gravity, and the capacity to see beyond it was to invent a machine that can act against it. Some may argue that being able to fly is also bound by laws of nature but what I'm focusing on here is that we are 'able' and have the 'capacity' to see beyond a law of nature that seems deterministic. Can this ability to see beyond a certain rule such as gravity perhaps be freedom of the will?

After an extensive invitation to ponder the existence of free will, Mele states that he is more inclined towards the straight or mixed conception of free will than to the position that we have no free will at all. Though it might be tempting to expect a definitive answer from the author, this book provides the opportunity to explore ideas on free will and invites the reader to hone their own opinion. It's not a book that argues definitively. It's a comprehensive discussion which allows the reader to challenge and inspire further thought on this fascinating topic.

© Nikoo Aalabaf 2023

Nikoo Aalabaf is a Civil Engineer and a Philosopher with an MA in Philosophy from Birkbeck, University of London and MSc from Imperial College London.

Free Will: An Opinionated Guide, by Alfred R. Mele, 2022, OUP, 224 pps, £15, ISBN: 0197574238

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