Which happens first … a conscious decision to do something or the brain activity associated with doing it? Thanks to experiments Benjamin Libet conducted in the 1980s, it seemed that “the timing of … conscious decisions was consistently preceded by several hundred milliseconds of background preparatory brain activity.” It seemed, that is, that our brains had already acted to carry out what we only later consciously decided to do. But in “Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce,” Christian Jarrett says that may be changing. As researcher Dr. John-Dylan Haynes puts it, neuroscience may actually show that “a person’s decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves.”
In “How To Live a Lie,” William Irwin considers whether you can live as if there are moral truths, as if God exists, and as if you have free will even if you believe none of these things is true. His conclusion? Morality and God, no … but free will, yes. “Well, I cannot believe in free will, but I can accept it. In fact, if free will fictionalism is involuntary, I have no choice but to accept free will. That makes accepting free will easy and undeniably sincere. Accepting the reality of God or morality, on the other hand, are tougher tasks, and potentially disingenuous.”
In “Evolution Explains It All for You,” Galen Strawson considers Daniel Dennett’s arguments for compatibilism, the idea that “freedom is wholly compatible with determinism, although determinism is the view that everything that happens in the universe is necessitated by what has already happened, so that nothing can ever occur otherwise than it actually does.” Yet, Strawson says, “This compatibilist freedom … seems intensely unsatisfactory. “
In “The Free-Will Scale,” Stephen Cave says that we have an IQ that measures intelligence and also an FQ … freedom quotient … to show how much free will we have. “[T]he comparison with intelligence is revealing. For much of the past 2,000 years in the West, intelligence was conceived in terms of a God-given faculty of reason that set humans wholly apart from other creatures. ‘Intellect’ and ‘will’ were seen by the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, for example, as the two pre‑eminent faculties of the soul, which did not depend at all on the body. Now we know differently: we know that we have evolved through a long process of natural selection and that we share our faculties to varying degrees with other animals. Upon realising this, we did not conclude that there wasn’t really any such thing as intelligence – rather, psychologists set about putting it on a scientific footing. Similarly, we should not say that there is no such thing as free will, just because it is not how the theologians imagined; rather, it is time we put it, too, on a scientific footing.”
Is your life driven by a fate governed by a wise and just providence? Or are you and everything else simply the chance movement of atoms? In a defense of the Stoic worldview, Christopher Fisher says your psychological well-being may depend on how you answer these questions. “The chasm between the providentially ordered cosmos of the Stoics and the random atomic universe of the Epicureans was deep and wide, and it could not be bridged. Thus, as Marcus asserts, one must make a choice between them—either providence or atoms. … [W]e can choose to follow the cart of fate willingly, with gratitude for the life we have been given. We can take control of what is ‘up to us’ and leave the rest to providence. Or, we can continue to get dragged through life yelping all the way. The choice is ours and the choice is critically important to our psychological well-being.”
As Terry Eagleton notes in his review of Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained, “Rarely has the idea of freedom been so popular in practice and so disdained in theory.” But we are neither completely autonomous nor completely determined. “What … if our beliefs and desires lead us to act in a way that feels inevitable? Can we still be free if we could not have acted otherwise? Baggini is surely right to claim that we can. In fact, most of the things that matter – being in love, composing a superb sonata, detesting Piers Morgan, feeling horrified by the slave trade – have a smack of inner necessity about them … . What define the self most deeply are the sort of commitments from which we could not walk away even if we tried. The point, however, is that we don’t want to. Freedom from such engagements would be no freedom at all. True liberty lies in being able to realise such a self, not shuck it off.”
“Interestingly enough, philosophers have long been in the business of offering advice on how to be happy. Or at least not too sad.” Spinoza is one of the great philosophers offering advice on how to be happy: “As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their emotions and chained to what they love, such as fame, fortune and other people. This inevitably leads to sadness … .” In Spinoza, Self Help and Agency, Mike LaBossiere explains Spinoza’s advice about how we can free ourselves from our emotions … and then points out “one crushing and obvious problem with Spinoza’s advice.” Along the way he makes quite a few interesting points about free will and determinism.
The answer may depend on whether you believe you have free will.
The more we understand about the world and especially our brains, the more it seems that our decisions are determined by forces — our genes, our neurons, our upbringing, for example — that are beyond our control. And yet we experience making choices. In “The Benefits of Binocularity,” Erik Parens explains the “better way to go about trying to understand what sorts of beings we are is to see ourselves as both free subjects and as determined objects, and to accept that we aren’t wired for seeing ourselves in both ways at once. Using either lens alone can lead to pernicious mistakes.”
Do you have free will? It’s the only choice. Nice review by John Tierney of ideas about free will.
How do philosophers’ and scientists’ theories about free will line up with what people actually think about it? “Intellectual concepts of free will can vary enormously, but there seems to be a fairly universal gut belief in the concept starting at a young age. … Whatever their cultural differences, people tend to reject the notion that they live in a deterministic world without free will.”
Does it make any practical difference whether you believe you have free will? We “pragmatically intuit that regardless of whether free will exists, our society depends on everyone’s believing it does. The benefits of this belief have been demonstrated in other research showing that when people doubt free will, they do worse at their jobs and are less honest.”