October 10th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Will drought and falling dollar spike food prices?

CANBERRA OBSERVED Nationals extract good deal in Turnbull takeover

EDITORIAL Obama's climate gambit: do as I say, not as I do!

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Senate committee says no to marriage plebiscite

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Turnbull divides party in Cabinet reshuffle

RURAL AFFAIRS FTAs eat away at our food and agriculture surpluses

RELIGION IN RUSSIA Byzantine Catholics driven underground

FINANCE Hidden by a metaphor: the secret life of money

EDUCATION Proliferation of screens making kids no smarter

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cabinet door must be open to public service

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Child-support program under the microscope

PUBLIC POLICY Prohibition of drugs has the evidence on its side

CINEMA Kids will love pixelated Aussie classic: Blinky Bill: The Movie

BOOK REVIEW Hope for the Land of the Southern Cross

BOOK REVIEW Evaluating arguments against free will


Books promotion page

Evaluating arguments against free will

News Weekly, October 10, 2015


FREE: Why Science Hasnt Disproved Free Will

by Alfred R. Mele

(Oxford University Press)
Hardcover: 99 pages
ISBN: 9780199371624
Price: AUD$17.95


Reviewed by John Young


Some neuroscientists and psychologists deny that we have free will. In this short, clearly written book, Alfred R. Mele examines the common arguments proposed for this contention, and shows their deficiencies. He touches only on the philosophical arguments for free will, concentrating on refuting the allegedly scientific case against freedom.

Mele is director of the Big Questions on Free Will project, and has written extensively on the subject. The present book should appeal to students and the general reader.

To give an example of the kind of evidence put forward against free will. In an experiment done by Benjamin Libet, the participants were asked to flex their wrist when they wanted to, and EEG measurements were taken of what was going on in the brain. From the brain activity it seemed that the preparation to flex came a shade earlier than the decision to do so. Libet concluded, therefore, that the decision was not free but was caused by a previous unconscious movement.

Mele responds that the activity in the brain may be in preparation for a subsequent decision; the free decision may follow a fraction of a second later than the preparatory brain activity. In any case, this experiment is about making a random choice at a particular moment, when we could just as well have picked another moment, and free will might work very differently here from a case where we make a serious decision.

“You wouldn’t want to generalise from Libet’s findings to all decisions – including decisions made after a careful weighing of pros and cons. It’s a huge leap to the conclusion that all decisions are made unconsciously,” Mele writes.

Similar experiments from neuroscience are examined, and later Mele considers psychological arguments that are urged against free will. “Some researchers think that our behaviour is so powerfully influenced by factors of which we’re unaware that there’s no room for free choice – or free will,” he writes.

Social psychologist Daniel Wegner claims that conscious intentions are never among the causes of actions. He appeals to evidence about automatic actions.

Wegner describes conditions or circumstances where actions are done spontaneously and without intending them. So people sitting at a table at a séance might join hands, hoping that a spirit will move the table. This desire may sometimes cause the participants to move the table without knowing they are doing so.

From examples of spontaneous actions, with the person performing an action without consciously inten­ding it, Wegner generalises to all actions.

Mele rejects this generalisation, and comments: “There’s a big difference between unknowingly moving my hand in the direction of an object I hid or toward the street I’m thinking about and intentionally leaving my hotel room by 8am in order to show up on time for an important appointment in a city I’m visiting for the first time.”

As Mele points out, some scientists deny free will because “they set the bar for free will ridiculously high”. For instance, they think that to have free will we would need to be “absolutely unconstrained by genetics and environment (including the situations in which we find ourselves)”.

This small book provides a clear and devastating critique of allegedly scientific arguments against free will – arguments which, if true, would undermine the whole moral order and reduce human beings to creatures dominated by unconscious forces.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


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