In this interview, Al Mele, William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University, director of the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control Project (2014-2017) and former director of the Big Questions in Free Will Project (2010-2013), talks about his early love of sports (especially football), games and reading, being an East Detroit greaser, how having kids as an undergrad changed his perspective, doing odd jobs to make ends meet, how he choose between majoring in English and Philosophy, the role dumb luck played in his decision to go to grad school, his dissertation (ancient philosophy), how commenting on a paper got him interested in self-deception, his surprising emotional response to the publication of his first book, how he become more interested in free will, how philosophy can strengthen the will, how he felt when Dan Dennett accused him of changing his views to garner the favor of the Templeton foundation, why a younger version of himself would be surprised he’s doing what he’s doing now, how experimental philosophy can show traditional philosophers are wrong, the saddest moment of his career, his concerns about the future of philosophy, his aversion to curse words and his last meal…
As a kid, what did you do for fun?
As a kid, my first love was sports. I played little league football and baseball, and I spent a lot of time playing both sports unofficially. I played football through high school and baseball about half way through. I also loved bowling, board games, and cards. When I was nine or ten, I’d really get pumped up about playing poker and pinochle with the adults at holiday gatherings and the like.
Any other interests?
I liked to read, and it seems that there was plenty of time for that even with all the sports and game-playing. My father worked as a mailman in Detroit; some faculty at Wayne State University lived on his route and gave him books for his kids to read. He’d bring them home, and I’d get interested. When I was nine or ten, I read Homer’s Odyssey, which pulled me into Greek mythology. Around the same time I read “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” which I remember scaring the hell out of me that night. Edgar Rice Burroughs was my favorite author for a while. Using allowance money, I’d buy paperbacks for a quarter or so at a local bookstore. I read the Tarzan series, the Pellucidar series, and then the Barsoom series. Barsoom gave me a taste for science fiction – Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Lester del Rey, etc. – that continued through college.
High school sports?
My high-school career was part of my dad’s master plan. He really liked one of the local Catholic high-school football leagues. Catholic high-schools were allowed to recruit players from quite a distance because they had no school zones. By this time, we lived in East Detroit, which was a suburb on an eastern part of the northern border of Detroit. (I say “was” because it underwent a name change years later – Eastpointe – to distance itself from Detroit.) East Detroit’s southern boundary was Eight Mile Rd., the street that a much later movie featuring Eminem was named after. And my dad wanted me to play football at St. Ambrose High School, in Detroit. I went to public schools through seventh grade, and he thought I should get in a year at a Catholic school before high school, so I could learn the ropes. As a consequence, I went to St. Angela’s school in eighth grade and played on its football team, which my dad coached. Things went according to plan. I was recruited by the St. Ambrose coach, went to school there, and played all four years. I made an all-city football team and honorable mention all-state.
What position did you play?
I’m 5 feet, 8 inches tall on a good day. I played guard on offense and defensive end. When I discuss this, I like to mention that people were smaller back then. These days defensive ends are enormous (as are offensive guards), and more enormous than linebackers. I played a stand-up defensive end, which is a lot like an outside linebacker; so I sometimes say outside linebacker to make it all less implausible to young people. (Our defensive set-up had one linebacker – a middle linebacker – and six linemen.)
Did you enjoy high school? You went to high school in the 60’s, right? What was that like?
High School was interesting. It was my fourth school in four years: sixth grade in elementary school, seventh grade at Grant Junior High, eighth grade at St. Angela’s, and then on to St. Ambrose. It was 1965, and styles were changing. Where I lived, boys my age tended to slick their hair back and wear tight slacks and pointy shoes. (Think of the movie “Grease.”) When I went to junior high school, I opted for that look on the grounds that it was time to start trying to be cool. And the look persisted. But St. Ambrose was very close to Grosse Pointe Park, a ritzy suburb. Almost half of the students were from the Grosse Pointes and the other half from Detroit. The dominant Ambrose look was, one might say, more collegiate (by early 60s standards): hair combed to the side, no grease, loose trousers, no pointy shoes. Even the Detroit kids there adopted that style. Most of them had been in school with the Grosse Pointe kids since they were five years old, and the Grosse Pointe look prevailed. So I gradually caved in. But not with much success, I was told. One night, at a pool hall, I ran into one of the older guys on my football team. I had greaseless hair, and I was wearing a plaid shirt – a Grosse Pointy shirt. He said something like “I can see that you’re trying, but you just don’t have it in you, I think.” Oh well.
Haha…did you fit in eventually?
I think it took me a year or so to adjust to the new culture, but I ended up enjoying high school very much. I made some very good, long-term friends there, and I had a good time. It was a tiny school – fewer than 400 students. So I knew almost everyone there, which was a different experience from my public school days. The high school was torn down years ago. But the church is still there. In fact, it shows up in the movie Gran Torino. My brother Ron pointed that out to me. He still goes to church there. Ron was on the football team too, one year behind me. And when I was a senior, my brother Dino also played on the team. My dad was thrilled; he could watch all three of us play at the same time.
Dino is an awesome name. What do your siblings do now?
Ron started working as a mailman when he was 19 and retired recently. He lives near our old high school. I’ll tell Dino you think his name is awesome. That’s his middle name, which he went by until he moved away from Michigan. He goes by his first name now, Dennis, but family and old friends call him Dino still. He’s a real estate attorney in southern Florida. My sister, Annamarie, is next chronologically. She’s a legal secretary in Philadelphia. My youngest brother Mark is a lighting specialist for movies and TV. He’s a rigging gaffer, for people who know the movie terminology. He worked at Warner Brothers in Hollywood for many years and then moved to New Mexico to work on Breaking Bad, an excellent TV series. He’s working on the spin-off, Better Call Saul, now.
Did you want to go to college?
I was the first one in my family to go to college. But it seemed like a foregone conclusion that I would. Sometimes, just to get my dad riled up, I’d tell him that I wasn’t sure about going to college, but I assumed I would. I should add that my dad has always been my biggest fan. In fact, the dedication in my recent book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will reads as follows: “For my biggest fan: my father.” At the time of this writing, he’s 91 years old and doing well. My mother was great too; she died too young.
I’m sorry to hear that. May I ask what happened?
Pancreatic cancer. She battled it for about a year and died at the age of 71.
Where did you go to college?
I was recruited by the football coach of the Kalamazoo College Fighting Hornets. The conjunction of my SAT scores and my football skills got me a scholarship – even though, as a Division III school, Kalamazoo College didn’t give athletic scholarships. I decided not to play, and I wasn’t ready to take school seriously. So there really wasn’t much in Kalamazoo for me.
I met my first wife, Connie, in my first year of college. She was a freshman at Kalamazoo College too. After my first year, I transferred to Wayne State University, back in Detroit. I also got married that summer, and my first child was born during my sophomore year – my son Al.
Did that experience change how you thought about philosophy or life generally? How did you manage school and kids?
The thought of a child on the way caused a change in me. Suddenly, I was serious about school – and I really enjoyed my classes. I had a scholarship at Wayne too, but I had a family to support. I worked work-study jobs – at a mental health outpatient clinic and some recreation centers for kids – and I had other jobs on weekends and some evenings: I worked in a scrap yard and a small market, and I did some bricklaying, house painting, and the like. I was a very busy guy. Connie worked as a legal secretary while I was in graduate school, which definitely helped pay the bills.
How did you end up majoring in philosophy? Did you ever consider doing anything else?
In my first year at Wayne, I took a marvelous introductory philosophy course from Larry Lombard, then logic, then a terrific course in the history of modern philosophy from Bill Stine. At the same time, I rediscovered literature. After a year or so, I had to make a choice between English and Philosophy: It was time to declare a major. Surprisingly, in retrospect, it wasn’t an easy choice to make. I stayed up all night – first trying to decide on a decision procedure, and then, after I settled that issue, making the actual decision. What it came down to, as I recall, was this: both philosophy and literature were enormously enjoyable, but philosophy, in addition, was challenging; and, I thought, enjoyment plus challenge defeats mere enjoyment.
Could you explain what you mean there? Maybe this is my inner hedonist talking, but why not just enjoy yourself?
Well, for a hedonist, I’ll say that overcoming challenges brings me extra pleasure – the greater the challenge, the greater the pleasure.
What made you decide to take the plunge and go to grad school for philosophy?
I had no thought at the time of actually becoming a philosopher myself, which wasn’t surprising since I rarely thought more than a month ahead back then. In fact, I’m not sure that I would even have gone to graduate school if I hadn’t run into Robert Baker (another teacher of mine) on the bus one day on my way home from school. He asked what I was planning to do after graduation. I replied that I hadn’t given it much thought. He mentioned graduate school as a possibility, which struck me as interesting; so I asked him where I might apply. He recommended the University of Michigan, which wasn’t far away (about 50 miles); and after a thoroughly enjoyable year painting houses handled by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, laying bricks, installing insulation, and so on, I went there.
You wrote a bit about this, right?
I’ve actually written about my college career already (along with my childhood and more), for a volume entitled Falling in Love with Wisdom. The book was published in 1993; so I suppose I wrote my little piece a year or two before that. It turns out that my article – “Philosophy, a Bus Ride, and Dumb Luck” – was reprinted in an anthology for basic philosophy courses, Readings about the Ultimate Questions: Thinking about Philosophy. I haven’t seen the book myself, but here (from a webpage) is a list of its first five chapters, in a section entitled “What is Philosophy?”: “What is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant; “Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect,” Baruch Spinoza; “Philosophy, a Bus Ride and Dumb Luck,” Alfred Mele; “Apology,” Plato (Selections); “The Value of Philosophy,” Bertrand Russell. I laughed when someone called my attention to this. I’m sure you’re laughing too. If I felt out of place in my first year of high school, imagine how I feel when I see this list. Great dead philosophers, deep topics; and there I am in the middle, writing about my younger self.
Were you prepared for grad school?
I don’t think I expected grad school to be as time-consuming as is turned out to be. One semester, I TA-ed for a visitor from Michigan State while taking a full slate of classes. I graded the work of about 100 students, each of whom wrote three seven-page papers and took a midterm exam and a final exam. By the end of that semester, I was exhausted – and ill for about a week.
Who were your favorite teachers in grad school?
How did you decide on your dissertation topic?
I was very interested in weakness of will even as an undergraduate. I read Donald Davidson’s “How is Weakness of the Will Possible?” in an undergraduate class. The problem is an ancient one, of course; and around the same time I took an excellent course on Plato and Aristotle taught by Larry Lombard, who had special interests in the philosophy of action and the nature of events. I also read R. M. Hare – a weakness of will skeptic – as an undergrad. My early interest in this topic eventually led to my dissertation topic. The title of my dissertation was Aristotle’s Theory of Human Motivation. Just now, for the first time in many years, I dusted off my copy of the dissertation – 377 pages (double-spaced, with quotations in block form single-spaced) in a loose leaf binder. The main topics (in order) are deliberation, the practical syllogism, choice, motivation, moral dispositions, weakness of will, and happiness. Writing the dissertation was my favorite academic part of grad school. For a few years, I thought that my research career would be devoted to ancient Greek philosophy. My first four journal articles – and 10 of my first 15 – were on Aristotle.
What did you do for fun?
There wasn’t a lot of time for fun. But, when I could, I shot pool after class on Fridays; the Michigan Union had a great bunch of pool tables. And I had lots of family and friends to visit in and around Detroit on holidays and an occasional weekend.
What do you enjoy about writing? You're one of the clearest writers out there. Does that come to you naturally?
Often, I think better while I’m writing. What I enjoy most is problem solving, and writing helps me do that. This late in the game, it’s hard to remember whether clear writing came to me naturally (but thanks for the compliment). I do recall enjoying writing philosophy papers as an undergraduate, and I don’t recall ever finding writing itself difficult.
Why do you think you're so interested in motivation and deliberation and rationality?
Over the years, I’ve been asked what philosophical topics I’m most interested in. My answers weren’t based on introspection. Instead, they were based on memory of which topics I’d written the most about. I seem to be interested in human behavior in general. I know you’re asking me why I’m interested in the topics that interest me and maybe whether there’s some connection between my favorite topics and my personality. I have to say that I don’t know. I see my main topics as very important topics; but there are lots of important topics that I don’t work on.
Let me be more specific, then. What about self-deception?
In my second year out of grad school, I was invited to serve as commentator on a paper on self-deception by Robert Audi. To be honest, I didn’t even know that self-deception was a topic in philosophy. So I read about 30 papers on self-deception, as I recall, and about half way through I had a view of my own. My commentary was published, and then I wrote a stand-alone piece on the topic that was published in 1983. Later work of mine on self-deception includes a target article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences and my book Self-Deception Unmasked.
You seem like a pretty disciplined guy...do you suffer from weakness of will?
Almost everyone suffers to some degree from weakness of will, including me. I suppose I do seem like a disciplined guy. But most of the apparent discipline takes very little effort. Over the years, I developed habits that I’m happy with. I really do love learning and problem solving (including writing). So I like working at it every day, which I’m in the habit of doing. I don’t have to struggle with myself to get myself to work. I also have the habit of getting less pleasant work out of the way early, which enables me to enjoy the more pleasant work without worrying about tasks I need to complete. This came in very handy when I used to do my own grading of undergraduate tests and papers, and the students were very appreciative of the quick turn-around time on grades. I recall talking myself into this sensible strategy long ago by focusing on such things as my duties to students and what I was mainly paid to do back then. My turn-around time on grad student papers these days is still very short, and students continue to appreciate that.
I know you used to smoke. You quit, right?
Well, I mainly use an e-cigarette, but I also smoke a real one occasionally.
You think studying philosophy can help 'strengthen the will' if you will?
One can find in philosophy tips for strengthening one’s will and motivation for doing so. It’s obvious that, on the whole, not caving into temptation against your better judgment is good for you. Reading Plato and Aristotle, for example, can bring this point home in a way that boosts your motivation to avoid “weak-willed” conduct.
What was the market like when you finished your dissertation? Did you have any doubt you'd get a gig in philosophy out of grad school? If so, did you have a backup plan? Where did you get your first job?
The market was bad back then too. I remember telling my parents about a job I applied for that had over 300 applicants. I was worried about not getting a job in philosophy, but I didn’t have a back-up plan. Fortunately, I found a job my first year on the market. It was a one-year job at Davidson College. Davidson gave me another one-year job the next year and then hired me in a tenure-track position.
When you started your first job, did you feel prepared to teach? Did you like teaching?
I did a fair bit of teaching as a grad student. At first, I was nervous, but I came to like teaching very much. By the time I got to Davidson, I felt well prepared to teach and I enjoyed teaching.
What attracted you to ancient philosophy? Why did your research interests shift to contemporary topics?
What attracted me to ancient philosophy was a combination of the grand topics Plato and Aristotle investigated and the depth and brilliance they displayed in the process. Gradually, I became more hooked on some of the topics themselves than on understanding and interpreting Plato’s and Aristotle’s positions on them.
Do you think you’ll ever returning to that stuff, the ancient stuff, in the future?
I don’t see myself writing in a serious way on Aristotle again (I never published anything on Plato). My last paper on Aristotle was published in 1985. Familiarizing myself with the past 30 years of Aristotle scholarship on whatever topic I might choose would take so long that I might not have time to write the paper.
You’ve written a ton of books and articles...what did it feel like to get your first publication? Your first book?
I remember being very pleased about my first publication – a critical piece on a paper by Tom Carson. My fellow grad students and I weren’t encouraged to try to publish anything. But I thought I’d give it a try on my own. I saw the acceptance of the paper as evidence that I was ready to make contributions of my own to the literature. My first book was published eight years later – by Oxford University Press. I recall getting the acceptance letter and thinking something like this: “Hey, I should be really happy about this, but I’m not feeling anything special. Well, I’m happy enough.” I put the letter in a drawer and got back to work.
How long did you stick around your first job? What made you decide to leave?
I worked at Davidson for 21 years. Florida State University made me an offer I couldn’t rationally refuse. The Werkmeisters put up about $2.5 million for the William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister chair in Philosophy and the state matched it dollar for dollar, creating a very healthy endowment. I was invited to apply, and I accepted FSU’s offer in 2000. I was happy at Davidson, and I’m very pleased with my current job. Adjusting to Tallahassee was easy. It’s an easy place to live.
Are you still married? Did you have more kids? Are they interested in philosophy? Did you try to get them into it? What do they do?
A couple of years ago, I married for the second time. I have three adult kids. When they were young, we talked occasionally about things I was writing, but I didn’t try to interest them in philosophy, and they don’t have a special interest in it. However, my daughter, Angela, did design the covers for three of my books. Angela is an artist, and my sons, Al and Nick, are programmers.
Is your daughter named after St. Angela, like the school where you started playing football? Is there a story there, or do you just like the ring of it?
When we were thinking about baby names, I remember suggesting “Jane.” Connie convinced me that “Angela” would be a better name. When Angela was a little kid, Connie relayed these facts to her, and Angela informed me that she was very happy my suggestion about her name was vetoed.
What were the biggest differences between working at FSU and Davidson? Do you ever miss Davidson?
Davidson is a very fine liberal arts college, and FSU is a Research I institution. At Davidson, even with the reduced teaching load I had, I taught four courses a year, and I did all the grading for my courses. Because I have an endowed chair at FSU, my teaching load is half that, and my wonderful TAs do almost all of the grading for my undergraduate courses. I’m able to spend considerably more time on research and writing at FSU than I did at Davidson, and I spend more time giving invited lectures around the world. From 2010 through 2013, I was the director of the $4.4 million Big Questions in Free Will project, and I’m now directing a $4.5 million project on the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control. I doubt that all this money would have come my way if I had still been at Davidson, and the money has funded – and will fund – a lot of excellent work by interdisciplinary teams and solo researchers. The two jobs are very different. I have very fond memories of Davidson, but moving here was definitely the right decision. I very much enjoy teaching, but the same is true of research and writing, and I’m happy to be in a position to direct a lot of money to good intellectual causes.
Some philosophers, Dan Dennett, for instance, have criticized you for accepting the money from the John Templeton Foundation. Your response was very measured and sensible. Does that type of thing, being charged with changing your views for financial gain, basically, effect you at all personally?
As I might have mentioned in my reply in Daily Nous, I didn’t take Dan Dennett’s remarks personally. He likes bashing the John Templeton Foundation, and reviewing my book Free – which was one of the many fruits of my Big Questions in Free Will project – gave him the opportunity to do that. Frankly, I wasn’t bothered at all by the remarks you have in mind. People who know my work on free will know that the suggestion that I warped my ideas in Free to cater to JTF is utterly unfounded, and anybody else can easily look into it. The single point on which Dennett suggested I might be catering to JTF has been a feature of my position on free will since 1995 (as voiced in my book Autonomous Agents), long before I knew anything about JTF. As you remember, Cliff, I’m an easy going guy. When my actual philosophical positions are misrepresented in print by philosophers, I sometimes find that irritating. But Dennett didn’t do that, and his suggestion was too far-fetched to take seriously.
Since you've started, how have your philosophical views evolved?
My philosophical views have mainly involved by expansion. I have a much more comprehensive philosophical view now than I did when I was a young philosopher. No surprises there! I started with Aristotle on human action and then moved on to a piece of a huge puzzle about human behavior: the piece was irrational behavior of certain kinds – weakness of will and self-deception. Next, I developed a theory about how intentional actions are produced, which eventually led me to personal autonomy and free actions – or free will. I also returned to my early topics in subsequent books and developed my ideas more fully.
Is there anything you believe now that a younger version of yourself would be surprised you believe now?
I’m sure my twenty-something self would be surprised that I have detailed views about free will. Back then, I found the topic boring. Teaching it bordered on being tedious. It looked to me like little progress was being made.
It seems like as time has passed you've become more and more interested in the empirical side--the neuroscience--of action theory. Is this because a) there is simply more scientific work on the subject, b) you think it's more important than you used to, or both?
Even in my first book, Irrationality (1987), I drew significantly on science in tackling philosophical issues. My aim was to solve certain problems, and when I thought science could help with that, I looked into the scientific literature. This connection with science is a feature of all of my books. Regarding neuroscience in particular, there’s simply much more philosophically interesting work in that field now than there was years ago. Some of it was funded by the Big Questions in Free Will project, I might add. Some fruits of the project were collected in a volume I edited, Surrounding Free Will. The young woman on the cover is my daughter, Angela.
What's your take on experimental philosophy?
“Experimental philosophy” is defined in different ways by different people. I’ll concentrate on the survey-style kind that looks into folk concepts. I personally find this kind of experimental philosophy most useful in connection with the claims some people make that they are analyzing or writing about the folk (or ordinary) concept of something or other. For example, Hugh McCann, in a paper defending the Simple View – that is, the thesis that, necessarily, S intentionally A-ed only if S intended to A – says that “the Simple View . . . pertains to the everyday concept of intending, not a stipulated one.” Presumably, he would have said the same, if asked, about the concept of intentional action to which the view pertains. And some survey studies give us good reason to doubt that McCann’s conception of intentional action matches “the folk concept” of such action. In a related vein, some scientists have claimed that the ordinary meaning of the expression “free will” is such that a being has free will only if it has an immaterial soul. There are survey studies, including some by me, that count strongly against this claim.
What has been the saddest moment of your career thus far?
The saddest moment of my career was the departure of my wonderful friends, Victoria Costa and Josh Gert, from the FSU Philosophy Department owing to the financial crunch here a few years ago. Victoria’s tenure-track contract wasn’t renewed and Josh, her husband, left with her. Other good friends have moved on from our department as well, but never as a response to pressure from FSU to go.
I can’t single out a happiest moment. I don’t get very pumped up about successes. I can say that I felt relieved and pleased that a BigThink interview I did went well. I had little warning about what I’d be asked about, and I had just been through some nasty dental implant surgery and some unanticipated follow-up dental work. If my face looks unusually thin in that interview, that’s because I’d been off solid food for quite a while – two weeks, as I recall. Anyway, I felt tired and weak going into the interview. I was asked about every major topic I’d ever written on. And, in the end, I was pleased with my performance. I left the interview for a taxi ride to LaGuardia with a smile on my face.
If you could go back in time, and give yourself advice when you were at University of Michigan, what would it be?
If I could talk to my grad school self, I’d tell him I know that he shouldn’t worry about getting a job in philosophy. That worry was a source of too much stress. I especially felt it when I was well into my dissertation and wondering what would happen afterward.
If you didn't end up in academia, what would you be doing right now?
I have no idea what I’d be doing if I weren’t in academia. Academia is the right place for me. And, within academia, Philosophy is the best home for me. I’m entirely free here to pursue my intellectual interests as I see fit.
How do you see the future of philosophy? Concerned with any trends?
Sometimes I worry that the nice home I found – academic philosophy, that is – won’t be so nice down the road: general financial problems are problems for academia, and the humanities are a relatively easy target. In my own small way, I’d like to help the general public appreciate the practical value of philosophy. Lately, I’ve had fun trying to reach out to undergrads in writing, as I did in my recent book, A Dialogue on Free Will and Science; and I enjoyed trying to reach a general audience in Free. I think these books display – in a way that is easy to understand and appreciate – the usefulness of a philosophical background in interpreting scientific findings, and the usefulness of philosophy more generally.
Nowadays, what do you do to unwind?
To unwind, I still shoot pool and play racquetball. I’ve also come to like watching movies on Netflix. I do so much traveling to give talks and to conferences that my only vacations are family visits.
Your thought experiments are sort of condensed science fiction...do you read fiction anymore?
I enjoy coming up with thought experiments, including counterexamples to various theses. For me, it’s an intriguing game. In the old days, when a lot more conceptual analysis was done, I’d routinely look at handouts just before people’s talks and see if I could come up with a counterexample to something before the talk started. (Sometimes, I discovered, I’d already published a counterexample!) That was fun. I’m sure I’d enjoy reading fiction. But I read science and philosophy for fun instead and enjoy fiction through movies.
You said you liked Edgar Rice Burroughs. Did you see the recent John Carter movie?
I liked it very much.
Favorite movie? Favorite curse word?
I don’t have a favorite movie. The same goes for curse words. Joanna, my wife, persuaded me to give the HBO series Deadwood a try recently. It’s giving me an aversion to curse words.
What does Joanna do?
Joanna is the Director of Academic Technology in FSU’s College of Business. She also teaches exercise classes: weight training, aerobics, and spinning.
Raisin Bran. But it’s almost time for lunch.