Free by Alfred Mele – An Absurd Being Book Review

At just 90 pages, Free, by Alfred Mele, is a light, easy to read, accessible refutation of the idea that scientists have proven freewill doesn’t exist. Mele tackles some of the scientific arguments typically offered in defence of determinism and succeeds in, while not strongly making a case for freewill, definitely dismantling the scientific case against it.

He begins by looking at Benjamin Libet’s now infamous experiments from the 80s in which he asked subjects to flex their wrists whenever they felt like it and report when they first had the intention to do so. On average, participants reported the urge to act around 200 milliseconds before the muscle burst. However, through EEG, Libet detected activity in the brain (called the readiness potential, (RP)) around 350 milliseconds before the subject reported the conscious intention. Libet concluded from this that our brains ‘make’ our decisions without any conscious input.

Mele makes three arguments against drawing this conclusion. First, there is absolutely no proof that the RP marks the beginning of the decision process. It could very well just be the participant ‘getting ready’ or ‘priming’ for the conscious decision to move. In fact, a subsequent experiment Libet ran, actually suggests the RP cannot be the beginning of a non-conscious decision process. Even though we don’t have free will, Libet thought we could still veto a decision in the 550 milliseconds after the brain decided to flex its wrist but before the wrist actually moved. To test this, he asked participants to prepare to flex their wrists at a certain time – but not to follow through. He detected the RP begin to rise about a second before the set time and fade away about 150 to 250 milliseconds before that time. Libet took this as evidence in favour of his vetoing hypothesis but Mele suggests this is incorrect because the participants never actually intended to flex their wrists. How could they? They were explicitly told not to. The only way this could yield evidence in favour of Libet’s hypothesis is if the participants were somehow able to fool their brains; brains which are supposedly calling the shots. Rather, the fact that the RP occurred in the absence of an intention to flex their wrists suggests that the RP does not reflect an intention.

Second, Mele points to evidence that it only takes about 200 milliseconds for electrical signals form the brain to translate into a physical muscle burst. This raises the question as to why, if it is in fact a non-conscious ‘decision’, the RP starts 550 milliseconds prior to the muscle moving?

Third, Mele questions the validity of generalising from the circumstances surrounding Libet’s highly controlled and unnatural experiment to all of our decisions. After all, the whole point of the experiment was for participants to flex their wrists without consciously deciding to do so. If you specifically ask someone to do something without any reason and without any conscious deliberation, how can you then generalise your findings to situations which do involve consideration of reasons and (sometimes quite lengthy) conscious deliberation? Mele uses the analogy of going to the supermarket for a jar of peanuts. You have already made the conscious decision to get peanuts so when you are finally presented with a row of identical jars of peanuts and choose one at random, does this final random choice mean that every single one of your choices leading up to it must then have been just as random? Of course not.

Mele then turns from neuroscience to investigate refutations of freewill coming from psychology. Daniel Wegner in his book The Illusion of Conscious Will, puts forward four quite convincing arguments, drawn from experimental results, against the idea that we have freewill. I will mention two. First is the automatograph, which is basically a glass plate arranged in such a way that it records even the slightest movements of a hand placed atop it. If, while your hand is on the glass, you are asked about an object you have hidden in the room, experiments show that your hand will, without your conscious volition, slightly move in the direction of the object.

Mele also talks about a phenomenon called “utilisation behaviour” which arises from damage to the frontal lobes and results in a person performing unconscious acts. If you have this disorder and I touch your hand while you are holding glasses, you might automatically put them on. If I do the same thing again with another pair of glasses, you will put that new pair on over the first ones. In short, it results in automatic responses to stimuli. Wegner uses these (and other similar cases) to argue that freewill is an illusion.

The prime reason why this is an invalid conclusion is similar to the third reason given against Libet. Just because some acts are unconscious and automatic doesn’t mean that all actions are. It is important to note that Mele isn’t disputing the experiments or the phenomena discussed, only the interpretations. It is clearly true that in some situations our bodies act without our conscious volition. Wegner has demonstrated that. But there is absolutely no reason given for why we should extrapolate from these ‘fringe’ cases to all decisions.

Lastly, Mele looks at three famous experiments (including Milgram’s studies of obedience and Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment) where participants’ behaviours were heavily influenced by situational factors. In Milgram’s study, for example, people could be made to deliver painful, even potentially life-threatening, electric shocks to others as long as a person of authority (the person in charge of the experiment) was present and demanding they continue.

The argument here, what Mele calls the ‘situationist’ argument, is that human behaviour is entirely driven by external circumstances and situations. The obvious rejoinder, which Mele takes up, is that while people are clearly (and often significantly) influenced by their surroundings, there is absolutely no evidence that they are compelled to act in certain ways by them.

Mele concludes with a discussion about different versions of freewill. He identifies three categories; the first is tied in with a metaphysical soul, the second he calls modest freewill and this merely holds that we are able to act on conscious, rational decisions and are not constrained in any way, while the third, ambitious freewill, takes modest freewill and adds the requirement that an agent have a number of different options genuinely available to him or her compatible with everything that has happened in the past and the laws of nature. This last version means that if, after acting a certain way in a certain situation, you were to rewind time so that everything was exactly the same as it was before your ‘first’ decision, nothing would prevent you from acting in a different way.

Mele ignores the type of freewill associated with a soul but emphatically asserts we have modest freewill and argues that the jury is still out on whether or not we have ambitious freewill. Regarding this last, the point Mele drives home is that science has absolutely NOT proven that ambitious freewill is an illusion. He also (very) briefly raises the quantum argument in defence of this, namely that according to quantum mechanics, chance (probability) is built into the very fabric of the universe so strict determinism (of the type which would rule out ambitious freewill) is unlikely, at least with our current physical understanding of the universe.

So, why do so many scientists rule out freewill then? Mele argues that it is because they define freewill in ways that make the bar impossible to reach. Two examples he gives of this are where freewill is held to require the making of conscious decisions independent of brain processes and defining freewill as meaning we are absolutely unconstrained by our environment and our circumstances. Neither of these conceptions are what freewill proponents argue for, making them in fact, straw-men.

Free is strong in the sections that give the book its raison d’etre, i.e. refuting science’s claims to have disproven freewill, but it doesn’t really go the extra step to positively argue for the thesis. There is a section of the book (not covered in this article because I am unconvinced that it does what Mele wants it to do) where Mele discusses experiments which show that consciously making decisions and forming intentions have a genuine causal effect on future actions but apart from this, he doesn’t really give us any reason to think we have freewill, only that science hasn’t (yet) disproven it.

Mele is also quite right to point out the illegitimacy of knockdowns in which freewill is unreasonably defined, but I’m not sure I find his tripartite distinction much more helpful. It seems profoundly misleading to me to break freewill up in this way as it creates the impression that freewill is something we can have to varying degrees. This, I believe, is not true. Either we are free in a way that matters or we aren’t.

Distancing himself from any discussion which would tie freewill to a non-physical soul is, of course, sensible – anyone who believes in such a concept hardly need concern themselves with the claims of science anyway – but Mele’s distinction between modest and ambitious freewill seems unhelpful in the way I indicated above. To argue that we are free to act on our conscious, rational decisions (modest freewill) but may not be free to act in a different way if the (exact) same circumstances were to be repeated (ambitious freewill) seems to me to be saying we aren’t really free at all. Freewill only means something if we have reason to believe that those conscious, rational decisions are something more than just the inevitable firing of neurons in a grand causal chain extending all the way back to the Big Bang. This may or may not require us to have Mele’s ambitious freewill but it certainly demands something more than his modest version.

2 thoughts on “Free by Alfred Mele – An Absurd Being Book Review

  1. Pingback: Freewill by Sam Harris – An Absurd Being Commentary | Absurd Being

  2. Pingback: Free Will by Sam Harris – An Absurd Being Book Review | Absurd Being

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