Wherefore Art Thou Free Will?

Free Will is fascinating. Well to me at least. As a Christian I believed that all humans have free will, God given, because without that free will we could not make the choice to have faith.

As an atheist, I still believe that the choice I made to abandon my faith was a conscious decision based on a rational response to evidence.

However, it is not all that clear cut. Experiments on Free Will and our conscious brain are questioning what we understand as Free Will and the conclusions are fascinating. In essence, it seems that what we think of as Free Will is just an illusion and what we think are conscious decisions are simply our conscious brain being made aware of a decision that has already been dictated to it by subconscious process that are simply the result of our brains chemical and biological makeup.

The Why Evolution is True blog has many posts on the subject and the latest one is here (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/the-no-free-will-experiment/), its worth popping over too even if its to watch the 5 min embedded video. If Free Will and the puzzles surrounding it are of interest to you, then the wider discussions on Free Will at WEIT are worth digging out.

It’s the definition of Free Will that I find most challenging, which is rightly raised here too (http://prairienymph.wordpress.com/2011/12/21/the-cost-of-no-free-will/). One definition I have seen (I think it was on WEIT) is that if you could present someone with the exact same scenario again and again, they would make the same decision each time. Now this brings about massive logistical problems and I am not sure there will ever be a way in which such an experiment could be done because once the decision has been made, a repeat of that decision brings with it the memory of the previous decision and so the scenario is not identical.

Personally I am very reluctant to give up on the concept of Free Will and if I am brutally honest, I will go so far as to say that I find the idea a little bit concerning, frightening even; even if it is intellectually fascinating. I mostly understand the reasoning behind the suggestion that Free Will is just an illusion; however, it currently does lack the slam dunk that is absolute proof.

But what about morality?

If you accept that Free Will but an illusion, then I guess the only conclusion to come to regarding morality is that is also not chosen for us either. This brings about the discussion of responsibility and the consequences of our actions. If what we do is pre-determined by chemicals in our brains and we have no control over the decisions that are being made for us, how can we be punished for our actions when they cause harm?

My answer is that even if there really is no such thing as Free Will that should not change the existing ideas of actions, consequences and punishment.

How do we prove it either way?

For me, this is the far more interesting question. Until we knew for certain, all discussion on the consequences are largely academic. I know some have already embraced the idea that it is all an illusion. For me I need something more concrete than fascinating experiments. The suggestion that some rudimentary decisions appear to be made in the subconscious brain long before we know about it needs to be more nailed down for me and I also need convincing that the same is true for significant decisions, those that we ponder about and weight up in our conscious minds before deciding. Is the thinking process also just an illusion?

I don’t know how we can prove it and I will continue to follow the discussions and the science because on a personal level I think it is important. If it does in fact turn out that Free Will is an illusion then it pretty damning for religion. Hence I am not at all surprised to see that religious commentators and apologists are resisting this idea.

Personally, I think it is not something that is going to be nailed down anytime soon and the philosophical arguments will continues for a long time to come. I also think that its not a simple ‘yes it is’, ‘not its not’ conclusion. I think that what we consider as Free Will is far more likely to be a mixture of conscious and unconscious processes and that some decisions will appear to be consistently made for us by our biology, while others will be not so clear cut and show evidence of being far more conscious involvement. My prediction is that its not at as black and white as some blogs and articles would have us believe, rather the Free Will concept will be a varying scale of grey between illusion and cognitive thought.