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Using Our Free Will to Become More Resilient

An interview with Alfred Mele on how free will can help us and others.

In a world full of options, it can be difficult to know how to make good decisions and choices. What is free will and how do we exercise it in order to benefit ourselves and others? In this interview, Alfred Mele answers those questions and gives insight on how to both cultivate and use our free will for good.

Alfred Mele, used with permission
Source: Alfred Mele, used with permission

Alfred Mele, Ph.D., is the William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He is the author of 12 books and over 200 articles and editor or coeditor of seven books. He is the past director of two multi-million dollar, interdisciplinary projects: the Big Questions in Free Will project (2010-13) and the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control project (2014-17). His latest book is Manipulated Agents: A Window to Moral Responsibility (2019).

Jamie Aten: How would you personally define free will?

Alfred Mele: I’ve always kept two different conceptions of free will on the table. One is more modest than the other. The easiest way to describe them is in terms of sufficient conditions for making a free choice or decision. Here’s my modest proposal: If sane, unmanipulated people consciously make a reasonable choice on the basis of good information and no one is pressuring them, they choose freely. (I’m not proposing that all this is necessary for a free choice – just that it’s sufficient for one.)

Some people regard this proposal as too modest. What’s missing, they say, is a requirement that alternative choices are open to the person in a very specific, deep way. Sometimes you would have chosen differently if things had been a bit different. For example, if you had been in a slightly better mood, you might have chosen to donate 20 dollars to a worthy cause instead of just 10. But this isn’t enough for the kind of openness that some people say is necessary for free choice – what we can call deep openness. What’s needed is that more than one option was open to you, given everything as it actually was at the time – all your feelings and thoughts, your brain, your environment, and, indeed, the entire universe and its entire history. Having been able to have made a different choice if things had been a bit different is one thing; having been able to have made a different choice without there being any prior difference at all is another. This brings us to my less modest proposal: If sane, unmanipulated people consciously make a reasonable choice on the basis of good information while no one is pressuring them and while being able to make an alternative reasonable choice, in a sense of “able” that requires deep openness, they choose freely.

JA: What are some ways our free will can help us live more resiliently?

AM: If you take yourself to have free will, you see some things as up to you. When you take this perspective on things, you’re less likely to feel helpless and hopeless in the face of adversity or misfortune. When things aren’t going well, you’ll search for ways to turn them around. You’ll see what steps you take as up to you, even while you acknowledge that how successful you are at turning things around isn’t totally under your control. Free will can help us live more resiliently if we remind ourselves, from time to time, that we have it and recognize that to use it well when dealing with problems we need to reflect on evidence about how best to address those problems and choose accordingly.

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate free will?

AM: One way to cultivate free will begins with taking time, occasionally, to ask yourself how satisfied you are with your life. If you believe that improvements are in order in certain areas, you can think about how to go about making them, and you can turn thought into action by making appropriate choices. The most fundamental sphere of operation of free will is choice. And you can cultivate free will by putting yourself in a position to make good, important choices. You can take charge of your life rather than simply going with the flow. If, on reflection, you’re happy with how things are going, freely choosing to keep on going with the flow is an option.

JA: Any advice for how we might use their free will to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

AM: At first I thought this question contained a typo – that “their” was supposed to be “our.” But the question – exactly as formulated – is interesting. So how can we use other people’s free will to help them? Well, in conversation, we can appeal to the idea that they have free will and make the point that, because they do, things are not hopeless. (Studies show that the overwhelming majority of the people around us believe that they have free will.) We can also present them with options that they can freely choose among and encourage them to try to think of better options than the ones we presented. Simply helping people think of steps they can take – choices they can freely make – to improve their situations can be beneficial.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

AM: At the moment, I’m writing a short book for a general audience entitled An Opinionated Guide to Free Will. It’s squarely in philosophy. I see it as a companion to a little book I wrote on the science of free will, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. I’m also one of 17 principal investigators in an exciting interdisciplinary project on free will – Neurophilosophy of Free Will. We describe the multi-year project as “a close collaboration between neuroscientists and philosophers who together attempt to understand how the brain enables and controls conscious, causal control of human behavior.”