Mele Replies to Dennett on Templeton Funding (Guest Post)


Yesterday’s post, “Funding and Philosophical Results,” on Daniel Dennett’s critique of Alfred Mele’s acceptance of money from the John Templeton Foundation, generated a fair amount of discussion, with contributions from Dennett and his critics. Al Mele has now written a reply to Dennett, presented in the guest post*, below.


 Reply to Dennett

Dan Dennett suggests that my neutrality about compatibilism in Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will might be motivated by a desire to please the John Templeton Foundation (JTF). In fact, I was officially agnostic about compatibilism as far back as my book Autonomous Agents, published in 1995. Neil Levy makes a cute comment about this on Facebook. Here it is:

Now that I know that Al Mele adopted agnosticism about the compatibility question two decades before he received Templeton funding, in order to receive it, I shall replace discussion of the Diana thought experiment with thought experiments involving “Al, a demigod who uses his omniscient knowledge of the laws of nature and the exact distribution of subatomic particles to bring about an event in two decades time.”

In any case, this neutrality or agnosticism has been a feature of my work on free will ever since.

I should also mention that parts of Free are based on critiques of Libet’s and Wegner’s work in my book Effective Intentions, which was published in 2009, before I had any contact with JTF.

I wrote Free for a general audience. I keep things simple there. It’s not rocket science, and people can decide for themselves whether my arguments are persuasive. Dan himself seems to think they are persuasive, by the way. He says that his “review could . . . end on the mild, modest verdict that Mele has done his job and done it well” but ends it instead with a discussion of JTF.

As I’ve said in print, I enjoyed working with JTF on the Big Questions in Free Will (BQFW) project and I never felt pressured to do anything that seemed wrong to me. I have friends there now — good, hard-working people who love philosophy and want to showcase what philosophy can do. But, of course, Dan has a right to express his opinions about JTF.

I don’t take Dan’s remarks personally. I know his views on JTF. We had a friendly discussion of them in London a couple of years ago while I was in the midst of directing the BQFW project. It’s safe to say that we disagree about what JTF is up to. His views about JTF come through clearly in his article, and writing about Free was an occasion for him to express them. Tying those views to me by way of the agnosticism about compatibilism in Free is ineffective, for the reason that I mentioned. If JTF likes neutrality about compatibilism, I’m their guy; I’ve pretty much had that market cornered for almost 20 years. I’m told there’s a goddess named Diana who is predicting that now that the cat is out of the bag, “agnostic autonomism” (my old label for my pro-free-will view that is agnostic about compatibilism) will quickly become the dominant position in the free will literature; the money will drive things there, she says. However, this Diana is but a pale shadow of the Diana of mine that Neil mentioned. I don’t trust her predictions at all.

In the interest of disclosure, I should say that I’m directing another large project funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control (PSSC) project. I’m excited about it. I expect it to fund a lot of excellent work, as the BQFW project did. (For some results of the BQFW project, see A. Mele, ed., Surrounding Free Will, to be published soon by OUP.) Someone can say that my view of these projects is biased by the money – totaling about $9 million. But I see my work on these projects as a way of helping people make progress on issues that I have cared deeply about for a very long time. A look at my CV reminds me that my published work on self-control dates back to 1985, years before I got seriously interested in free will. (Right, I wrote a book on self-deception; so I know that it’s possible that my belief that I’m not biased by the money is biased by the money. But I also know that many things that are possible aren’t true.) Oh, if any thieves are reading this, let it be known that the $9 million doesn’t go to me! The projects mainly fund grants to scientists and philosophers. (The BQFW project had a theology component; the PSSC program doesn’t.)

I don’t plan to continue discussing this issue. Right now, I want to get back to a paper I was writing on free will. If there’s a demigod in it, he’ll be named Neil.

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