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Questions that probe why we think what we think, do what we do, and whether our choices are governed by free will have been the research focus of Alfred Mele…for nearly 20 years.
William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy
More than 94 percent of university instructors nationwide recently rated themselves as "better at their jobs than their average colleague." In a survey of a million high school seniors, 100 percent "thought they were above average in their ability to get along with others."
Our neighbor refuses to be persuaded by evidence that would convince an impartial jury that his spouse is having an affair, his child is abusing drugs, or he is experiencing early symptoms of a life-threatening condition.
Are these instances of self-deception or self-protection?
Questions that probe why we think what we think, do what we do, and whether our choices are governed by free will have been the research focus of Alfred Mele, the William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, for nearly 20 years.
It's a line of inquiry that can be traced back to Aristotle. But whereas most work in this field, called "philosophy of mind," has been theoretical, Mele has been one of the first philosophers to combine findings from many disciplines—social and motivational psychology, neuro-biology, and others—and his own mastery of analysis, reason, logic, and argument to create a body of writing that is recognized by his peers as scholarship of the highest order. Consequently, Mele has been invited to present at the Jowett Philosophical Society at Oxford University, as were Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and has answered invitations around the world.
Mele's work, however, is not just scholarly: it also could function as a program for improving the thought processes and choices that inform our daily lives. Follow the arc of Mele's work and you may come to know thyself and then, perhaps, to heal thyself.
The first step would be to become rational about certain kinds of irrational behavior. In Irrationality, Mele's first book (1987), he counters the commonly held belief of philosophers, dating back to Socrates, that weakness of will and self-deception are logically or psychologically impossible.
"How is weakness of will possible? Why would we act contrary to what we judge it best to do? " Mele asks. "Why not diet or why stop exercising when you were achieving the very results you desire?"
Between traditional philosophic strategies (relying heavily on semantics or failing to analyze various contingencies) and broad-sweeping homespun explanations ("It's just plain laziness") Mele has forged a nuanced explanation based on scientific experiments and philosophical analysis.
After addressing the roles played by beliefs, desires and intentions in producing human actions in his next book, Springs of Action (1992), Mele examines the case for autonomous action—free will—in Autonomous Agents (1995).
Are we in control of our actions or do our actions choose us? The answer may provide the greatest insight into what it means to be a human being. Thus far the answer has been elusive.
And again, while some say "Yes, action is choice," and others say "No, we are determined by culture or neuro-biology," Mele has found the balance.
"Free will is not something you either have or don't," Mele explains. "Not everyone has it to the same degree, and each individual is likely to have free will in different degrees, depending on the situation. A compulsive hand washer, for instance, has no autonomy about washing his hands, but may have total autonomy over a different kind of action. Similarly, the nicotine addiction seems to be the hardest one to quit."
Knowing these things can help us determine who may need help in order to help themselves, and who will be unable to function as their own autonomous agent and needs intervention.
Mele returned to self-deception in his book Self-Deception Unmasked (2001), where, you might say, he discovered that we often intervene on our own behalf.
"There's a puzzle about self-deception that is neat but misleading. When we think about deception, we think about me deceiving you, getting you to believe something untrue. But how does a person deceive himself about himself? If he knows the truth about himself, how's he going to get himself to believe its opposite? Again, using empirical work and philosophy, I explain how all these episodes can be explained without positing true belief. You deceive yourself mainly by interpreting data in certain ways that are guided by what you'd like to believe is true."
Which brings us back to the overwhelming majority of university instructors who rate themselves as above average and the million students who over-rated their social abilities.
"There's some work in evolutionary psychology that suggests that what mainly drives belief in people is a concern to avoid making the most costly errors. Sometimes the most costly errors are things like believing that you are not as good as you actually are. To avoid that error people tend to overestimate themselves, sometimes by quite a bit."
It would be hard, however, to overestimate the value of Alfred Mele's inquiries on the subject of the mind, for although we can survey the distant planets, we are just beginning to cast light on the faculty that governs our perceptions and behaviors, or appears to.