Most people, in my experience, are convinced they have Free Will. I, on the other hand, don’t think there is any such thing.
Of course there’s no disputing the “will” part – that’s just a description of behaviour, quite reasonably attributed to the body which actions it. In as much as it’s reasonable to regard people as individual beings (quite reasonable for most purposes, I think), then attributing at least some of their actions to their “will” makes complete sense. It’s just a description of the result of their decision-making: “I decided to set up a semi-autonomous spaghetti-crushing commune in Senegal” would be an act of will (and quite possibly folly). Or, for a rather more prosaic example, “I decided to put on a pair of trousers”. Definitely an act of will.
But what of “free”? Ah, say my many opponents, I could have decided to wear a skirt instead, there was nothing to stop me; and so it was my free choice which I did. And that, in their view, makes the choice an act of free will.
But here’s the thing: if the choice had been deferred to a random system (say, the toss of a coin), you wouldn’t say that was free will. Likewise, if the choice were constrained (say, by a very strong early conditioning that the only socially acceptable legwear for someone of my sex and background is trousers, with the expectation of punishing ridicule from my peers if this rule were to be transgressed) then that wouldn’t be a completely free choice either.
But these two mechanisms are how we actually make any personal decision – it’s either constrained (by the “reasons” we made that choice), or random; or some combination of the two. This is true right down to the level of biological, chemical or physical interactions. Either there’s a constrained reason for an outcome (predictability), or there’s some randomness (unpredictability). There really aren’t any other mechanisms by which choices can be made; and both of them are completely lacking in freedom. Thus, it seems, there is no way a decision can be made by a free will.
Spinoza (born: 1632) was quite good on the subject, although he confused the issue (to my mind) by ranting on about God a good deal. This was probably necessary to get properly excommunicated from the Sephardic Judaic community of Amsterdam, who thought God to be quite important (unlike me). Despite this distraction, he did come up with the following ripping quote:
Exactly. I’m sure it’s useful to our selves (as separate entities) to have an idea of self (ego), and the concept of self-agency is a fundamental part of that, so it’s useful to have the idea of free will. But that’s no reason to suppose that it actually exists!
I’ve noticed that as soon as people can attribute specific causes to behaviour (early trauma, PTSD, genetic abnormality, brain tumour, drugs, etc.) they find it easy to admit the possibility that the person so afflicted doesn’t have a free choice any more. But what’s different about people whose behaviour hasn’t been categorized yet? We are all constrained by such things to some extent; it just doesn’t usually show. (See Spinoza quot. above. It’s worth reading again, even after such a short time)
It’s also worth noticing that when inanimate things behave unexpectedly, people say “it’s as if it’s got a mind of its own!” Exactly so. It’s fundamentally impossible to tell the difference between so called “free will” and unfathomable complexity in decision-making.
I’d like to point out that this doesn’t make me a determinist, by the way. There’s plenty of randomness out there to put a stop to any idea of complete predictability. Some randomness may be just unpredictability which we haven’t analysed yet, but real randomness (like radioactive decay, the first and best example) seems to be a different animal altogether. Unless everything really is made out of Leibnitz’s windowless monads, after all.
As a slight aside, I read an interesting article recently which you might like, if you’ve got this far. It’s couched as a discussion about the arrow of time, but the idea at the bottom of it is that there may be no “perfectly defined” state from which causality follows: instead the definition of exact initial conditions might just be a reverse construction out of the resulting state. Hmmmm! Here’s the link.
Of course, if like me you really don’t believe in free will, the idea of personal responsibility becomes a bit silly, which tends towards a more compassionate, less blame filled perspective of the way the world works. Which fits nicely with Buddhism. However, it does make it seem that all the Abrahamic religions are, to a large extent, barking up the wrong tree. Which reminds me of one of my favourite cartoons; which, unfortunately, seems to be the only thing in the universe which can’t currently be found on the internet! So I’ll have to describe it for you. It consists of two dogs amongst some trees: one dog is saying to the other: “What if there is no right tree up which to bark?”