Use Your Illusion

Daniel Dennett applauds Alfred R. Mele’s Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, which picks apart a range of experiments from recent decades that purportedly show free will is an illusion:

A curious fact about these forays into philosophy is that almost invariably the scientists concentrate on the least scientifically informed, most simplistic conceptions of free will, as if to say they can’t be bothered considering the subtleties of alternative views worked out by mere philosophers. For instance, all the experiments in the [neurologist Benjamin] Libet tradition take as their test case of a freely willed decision a trivial choice—between flicking or not flicking your wrist, or pushing the button on the left, not the right—with nothing hinging on which decision you make. Mele aptly likens these situations to being confronted with many identical jars of peanuts on the supermarket shelf and deciding which to reach for. You need no reason to choose the one you choose so you let some unconscious bias direct your hand to a jar—any jar—that is handy. Not an impressive model of a freely willed choice for which somebody might be held responsible. Moreover, as Mele points out, you are directed not to make a reasoned choice, so the fact that you have no clue about the source of your urge is hardly evidence that we, in general, are misled or clueless about how we make our choices.

Similarly, Daniel Wegner’s case amounts to generalising the surprising discovery that in Ouija-board situations, people can often be made to feel they are the authors of acts that are in fact caused by the experimenter’s accomplice. Since in these rather artificial and strange circumstances we can be misled into thinking retrospectively that we chose to act when in fact we were manipulated into action, Wegner believes that it must follow (mustn’t it?) that we are never authoritative about the authorship of our acts. There are some complications to Wegner’s case, but this non-sequitur lies at the heart, and Mele has no difficulty providing evidence of cases in which our knowledge of our own reasoned choices is unassailable.