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The Four-Million-Dollar Question

For the next four years at least, Alfred Mele will have plenty of company in his quest to understand free will, thanks to an astonishingly large grant from the John Templeton Foundation. As announced in January, Mele has been given $4.4 million to assemble a team of scholars to attack the issue of free will from three directions at once: scientific, philosophical and theological.

The private foundation, established in 1987 by the investor Sir John Templeton, is well known for funding research into life's big questions—the origins of the universe, the evolution of life and philosophical and theological inquiries into human nature. Last year, Mele says, the foundation approached him about the best way to assemble a program that would explore the issue of free will. Pleased with his ideas, the foundation representatives then asked him to serve as the program's principal investigator.

About three-quarters of the money—some $3.4 million—will be put into funding peer-reviewed investigations into the science of free will, the theoretical underpinnings and philosophy of free will and the theology of free will. Of that amount, $2.8 million will go to empirically grounded research, while the rest will be split between the theoretical and theological angles.

Mele will assemble three review panels in the different areas and will serve on each of them. In addition to the research grants, the program will fund annual research colloquia from 2011 through 2013 and, for the next three years, will pay for a postdoctoral position in the FSU philosophy department for a scholar who focuses on free will. A two-week seminar on free will, which Mele will direct, will be held at FSU in the summer of 2012. Ten $3,000 prizes will be awarded to authors who publish essays on free will in popular publications.

Mele recognizes that four years is not much time to answer a question that thinkers have been wrestling with for millennia, but he hopes that the program will at least get us closer to the truth. "What I want to do is make significant progress on discovering whether we do or don't have free will," he says. "It's not as if in four years, we are going to know. But I want to push us along the way so that we can speed up our understanding of all of this."—R.P.


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