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Alfred Mele is an American philosopher and the William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He specializes in irrationality, akrasia, intentionality and philosophy of[…]

How free will and randomness intersect, and how working on ourselves could help events work out in our favor.

Question: Is luck based on a skewed understanding of statistics, or is there something more to it? 

Alfred Mele: Yeah, okay. All right, yeah, so that’s from my book, “Free Will and Luck.” I’ll tell you what I mean by “luck” in that book and then I’ll tell you why it’s important. I don’t know how much I mean by luck is what ordinary people mean by it, but see there again, we can do surveys and we could find out what they mean. So, luck for me has two dimensions and I’m always thinking about lucky events, or lucky happenings. So, a lucky happening for a person, say you or me, is something that one, has an effect on us, an effect on our lives, and two, that we have no control over. 

So, just stupid examples. If you were walking down an ordinary street on an ordinary day – well, let’s make it me because this is a bad example. And a piano fell on my head, bad luck for me. Right? It has an effect on my life, it probably ends it, and I had no control over it. Or maybe, you’re walking down the street and you find a hundred dollar bill. Well, good luck for you. So, that seems like the ordinary person’s sense of luck so far. But, the luck that concerns me is the kind that’s involved in what I refer to as the mid level, or mid grade, kind of free will. The kind that requires that when you act, you could have done otherwise, that you don’t act freely unless when you act you could have done otherwise. 

So then, what’s going to have to be the case is that you’re brain works in such a way that although in the actual scenario it produces a decision at a particular moment to do a certain thing. In some other possible scenario with everything being the same up until then, it produces a different decision, or it doesn’t produce that decision, you go on thinking. Right? Now, it looks like you exerted all the control you can up until the decision and then there are two different ways it could go that looks like luck. It looks like tossing a coin and it coming up heads. So, the question there really is, it looks like luck of that kind is required for this mid level free will, but does it also preclude it? Does it also block free will because now we’re starting to look a bit random? 

So, most philosophers, almost all of them who write about free will, in fact all of them, except me. Defend either a view called “compatiblism,” which is a view according to which free will is compatible with what philosophers call “determinism,” which isn’t what most people think determinism is. I could talk about that. Or, they defend this mid level kind of free will view, or even a more extreme view of free will, but not many. We could call that premium, I guess. Or, they defend the no free will view. So, they all have a definite opinion, a definite view. Whereas, what I do is I say, “Look, I’m not going to choose between the regular free will and the mid level free will. It’s going to be like a restaurant where instead of only having one option, we have two, and then my opponents are going to be the ones who say there is no free will.” Because you see, that’s the idea. So, I’m not committed to the existence of this mid level free will, but I am curious about whether it can actually work out. 

So, it looks like the mid level free will requires the kind of randomness, or luck, and then the question is, does that block free will? Well, how should we think about that? Here’s one way, it’s crude, but it’s one way to start. And this is just an analogy, but imagine that we have little roulette wheels in our heads and maybe when we’re very young kids there split 50/50, but as we make decision over time and learn from those decisions and consequences and so on, we can shift the probabilities. The probability distribution in the roulette wheel. So, for example, if you make good decisions and learn that things go well and that increases the probability that you’ll make more good decisions and when you make bad ones and you see that things go badly, you work on yourself to make yourself better so that you’re more likely to make good decisions. In this kind of way you can shift the probabilities on this little roulette wheel and increase the probability that you’ll make mainly good decision in the future. 

So what I think is that on this mid level view of free will, if what we have to work with is a kind of glitchy mechanism, a mechanism that has this randomness in it, in order so we can have free will, then what we should do if we’re stuck with it is try to improve it. So, we should try to work on ourselves and over time make ourselves people who are much more likely to do what we judge best than to succumb to temptation. So, I think we can sort of solve this randomness problem, but no by looking at people at particular moments in time, looking at them over long stretches of time and how they can work on themselves and improve themselves. 
Recorded on January 5, 2010
Interviewedrn by Austin Allen
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