Over the years, and decades, I've had lots of intense discussions with other people about free will.
Partly this is because my first book about physics and mysticism had a chapter called "Laws of cause and effect govern lower levels of creation." Then my second book, "Life is Fair," argued in a different fashion that karma rules the universe, and karma is basically a spiritualized form of cause and effect.
My view of reality is much different now. I don't agree with myself about a lot of stuff that used to make sense to me, but doesn't from my current perspective.
I'm still fascinated by the notion of free will, though.
So I was excited to see that the most recent issue of New Scientist had an article called "The free will delusion." Here's some excerpts, some of which refer to a thought experiment described in a short video that you can watch here.
Neuroscientists increasingly describe our behaviour as the result of a chain of cause-and-effect, in which one physical brain state or pattern of neural activity inexorably leads to the next, culminating in a particular action or decision. With little space for free choice in this chain of causation, the conscious, deliberating self seems to be a fiction.
From this perspective, all the real action is occurring at the level of synapses and neurotransmitters - putting us a lot closer to that deterministic world of 2500 than most people think.
For now most of us are content to believe that we have control over our own lives, but what would happen if we lost our faith in free will?
...People whose belief in free will was challenged were, on average, less altruistic than the other group. The researchers also found that priming people with anti-free will statements made them behave more aggressively towards strangers, as measured by how much chilli sauce they added to a dish destined to be eaten by someone who had expressed a dislike of hot foods
...When Stillman and colleagues asked supervisors to rate the work of their employees, those with a greater belief in their own free will were generally rated as performing better than those with weaker beliefs.
...All the evidence indicates that our sense of free will is deeply ingrained. In 1998, the International Social Survey Programme asked around 40,000 people from 34 countries: "Do we make our own fate?" More than 70 per cent answered in the affirmative. And people don't just believe they have free will, they also believe they have more of it than others.
...Alfred Mele, a philosopher at Florida State University, suggests that when scientists talk about the brain and free will, they need to tread carefully. "Neuroscientists often talk as if our conception of free will depends on having non-physical minds or souls," says Mele, and as modern neuroscience pretty much rules these out, free will seems to fall too.
But this needn't follow. As Nahmias's studies show, belief in free will doesn't depend on having a soul, but on feeling in control of "your" actions. So long as the citizens of 2500 do not lose that perception, the reality of determinism should have little effect on their behaviour. And if the recent studies prove anything, it's that this feeling of controlling our own destiny is very robust.
Well, it should be.
Neuroscientists understand that we humans aren't capable of knowing how our brain is working behind the conscious scenes. An intention pops into our awareness and we think, "Ah, this is what I want to do."
So our direct experience is of free will, just as we intuitively believe that we have (or are) a "self" separate and distinct from the physical body. It's sort of like no matter how well we cognize that the earth's rotation makes the sun appear to move through the sky, it still seems to us that the sun rises and sets while the earth stands still.
Personally, I can't understand how our will could be "free."
How could this be? What does free even mean? Completely unaffected by outside influences? This isn't possible, given what is known about the laws of nature, heredity, how the brain works, culture, and our social nature.
I think the closing conclusion in the excerpts above that I quoted from the New Scientist article gets it about right. If I view myself as someone who can control "my" actions, then I'll feel like I've got free will (even though I don't).
But if I recognize that I'm part of a marvelous interconnected web of relationships and exchanges of energy with entities both living (such as my friends and relatives) and insentient (such as the sun and earth's atmosphere), then I won't regard myself as being isolated from the effects of influences beyond my skin.