Free will, or rather the lack thereof, fascinates me. I've blogged about this subject a lot. (Couldn't help myself, for deterministic reasons.)
In the December 2012 issue of Scientific American there's a letter about a recent Skeptic column by Michael Shermer. In the column it was argued that what humans really have is "free won't." Shermer says:
But if we define free will as the power to do otherwise, the choice to veto one impulse over another is free won’t. Free won’t is veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice. I could have had the steak—and I have—but by engaging in certain self-control techniques that remind me of other competing impulses, I vetoed one set of selections for another.
Well, the Big Question that Shermer doesn't address regards the "I" who supposedly made a real choice to veto one action possibility for another one.
Where the heck does that "I" reside? Wouldn't it have to hover over Shermer's neural impulses in some transcendent realm for it to have an overruling free won't ability?
Such is the eminently reasonable point of James Leritz in his letter.
Michael Shermer defends free will in "Free Won't" [Skeptic] by arguing that although the individual may not be making choices, he is free to veto choices presented by the brain. Yet a veto is simply a choice to reject a previous choice. Similarly, in arguing that the veto takes place in a separate part of the brain, Shermer ignores that all locations within the brain are part of that organ -- there is no outside authority.
Michael Shermer had a chance to reply to the letter. Here's what he said.
The fact that we can be conscious of the consequences of our choices means that we can choose to veto them, and we can even train ourselves to have more self-control over temptations to make choices that we know will not be good for us. Through practice and positive feedback, I can train myself to resist eating fatty foods and can even choose to design my lifestyle to avoid such temptations. All these choices happen in a determined universe, but they are nonetheless my choices.
Huh? Makes no sense. Shermer is back-pedaling furiously, but not far enough.
In his response he seems to have given up on the "free" part of his free won't notion. Shermer accepts that his choices happen in a deterministic universe. Yet by throwing in the words "they are nonetheless my choices" he shows that he missed Leritz's central point.
There's no Me separate from the brain. There's no I separate from the brain. "My choices" simply means "what the brain does." It might deterministically decide to do something, then deterministically change that choice after more brain activity or incoming information.
I start to jump over a creek, believing that I can leap from one side to the other, then stop after taking a few initial steps. No free won't is involved here. "My" brain (it's hard to get away from that word in English) adjusted its inclination for reasons outside of "my" conscious awareness.
It's difficult to see through the illusion of free will. But it's possible. Not through free will. Through deterministic events/information changing the brain. Maybe this will happen to Shermer eventually.