Is there such a thing as free will?

2 November

Common sense would suggest that we certainly do make choices, that they seem to originate in us  – and it does make sense to hold people responsible for what they do. Those are things that most people feel to be self-evident. The way people would expect to feel if we didn’t have free will is not the way we feel. But do our feelings deceive us or is there something to our sense of being in control?

There’s a basic choice you have to make. Do you think that in order to have free will there must be some way in which humans can break the natural chain of cause and effect? If you think you do, then you’ve got two choices. Either we need that and we can’t get it, therefore we don’t have free will. Or we do, therefore we have free will. Accounting for how we do that becomes extremely difficult. The alternative is to say no, whatever free will is it can’t be something that requires you to break free of the laws of nature. It’s something else. If you’re in that camp you’re broadly termed a compatibilist.

Neuroscience and evolutionary biology make certain things starker and more obvious. Neuroscience makes stark the fact that we’re not aware of initiating a lot of what we do but that’s not something you need neuroscience to know. When you talk to someone, there’s a strange, disconcerting way in which the words are just coming out of your mouth and you don’t know exactly what you’re going to say until you hear it yourself. We’re already aware that things originate unconsciously.

Does the degree of self-regulation we have add up to free will?

The genetic stuff makes stark that we are not the sole authors of ourselves. A lot of the things we believe or want have their origins in our genes or our upbringings and we have no control over them. Again, the fundamental insight doesn’t require genetics. People know that they take after their parents and reflect their own cultures in some way.

So whatever free will is, it can’t mean being the ultimate author of your own self, it can’t mean having conscious control over everything you do and it can’t mean having the capacity to break free of the laws of nature. Those are the things that free will can’t be.

So does the degree of self-regulation we have add up to free will? It becomes a question of definition. People who say no say that it turns us into rather more sophisticated self-driving cars: we’re built in such a way that we can forge our own path through life but the degree of external programming by culture and genes is so strong that they don’t think it gives us something worthy of the name free will.

But I think if you say to someone we don’t have free will they immediately assume what that means is our choices don’t make a difference to the world, we have no responsibility for what we do, and we’re just puppets of external forces, like robots or computers.

I think most people could and should accept the fact that, as long as it’s the case that we have the capacity to be self-monitoring creatures who can regulate our behaviour within certain parameters, then we have something that we can call free will. 

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