Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Proof that there is - or is not - free will is worth what, in money? $4.4 million from Templeton?

Announcing the $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to Alfred Mele,

Do we have free will? FSU philosopher awarded $4.4 million grant to find out
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Since the beginning of time, philosophers, scientists and theologians have sought to find out whether human beings have free will or whether other forces are at work to control our actions, decisions and choices.

Now, Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele has been awarded a $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to get to the bottom of this question for the ages. Mele, the William H. and Lucyle Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, will oversee a four-year project to improve understanding of free will in philosophy, religion and science.

"This is an extraordinarily large award in the humanities, which speaks volumes about Al Mele's worldwide reputation as a scholar, the excitement provoked by his newest ideas, and the Templeton Foundation's commitment to the highest standards of creativity in ideas and rigor in scholarship," said Joseph Travis, dean of Florida State University's College of Arts and Sciences. "An award of this magnitude and visibility puts our Department of Philosophy, and Florida State, in a very bright international spotlight."

The first big question I would ask is, what is the practical importance of the question? The people who administer the Highway Traffic Act in my province assume that one has free will. Driving while over the alcohol limit is assumed to be an offence under the Act, whereas going off the road due to a pothole is not. But some want to change this:

The project, "Free Will: Human and Divine — Empirical and Philosophical Explorations," is not quite as esoteric as the topic might suggest. For thousands of years the question of free will was strictly in the domain of philosophers and theologians. But in recent years, some neuroscientists have been producing data they claim shows that the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises. If true, conscious control over action — a necessary condition of free will — is simply impossible. Likewise, some social psychologists believe that unconscious processes, in tandem with environmental conditions, control behavior and that our conscious choices do not.

Mele argues

"It's not as if in four years, we are going to know. But I want to push us along the way so that we can speed up our understanding of all of this."

[ ... ]

"If we eventually discover that we don't have free will, the news will come out and we can predict that people's behavior will get worse as a consequence," Mele said. "We should have plans in place for how to deal with that news."
Actually, there is no news. Every drunk driver claims "drink done him", yet he could not have got drunk except by exercising his free will to drink before driving, instead of going for a walk in the park. Unfortunately, this sort of verbiage tends to promote more and more rules, which the human mind is always capable of getting around.

Other free will stories here.