Everybody believes they have unfettered free will, yet almost certainly nobody does. This is just one of the illusions that Anil Seth debunks in his captivating book, "Being You: A New Science of Consciousness."
I'm fascinated by free will. Of course, I don't have a choice in this.
Seth makes a strong case for being skeptical about our ability to choose actions, thoughts, emotions, and such by somehow stepping outside of all influences other than...
That's what's so difficult to come up with. What could possibly reside in human consciousness that produces the "free" part of free will?
If something like that existed, it would be spooky. Meaning, supernatural or other worldly -- like a ghost. Seth writes:
Let's first be clear about what free will is not. Free will is not an intervention in the flow of physical events in the universe, more specifically in the brain, making things happen that wouldn't otherwise happen.
This "spooky" free will invokes Cartesian dualism, demands freedom from the laws of cause and effect, and offers nothing of explanatory value in return.
So does this mean that everything is determined by those laws of cause and effect? Maybe.
But denying free will doesn't rest on a strict determinism. Even if randomness is at play in certain aspects of reality, such as the quantum realm, this doesn't provide support for free will.
Once spooky free will is out of the picture, it is easy to see that the debate over determinism doesn't matter at all. There's no longer any need to allow any nondeterministic elbow room for it to intervene.
From the perspective of free will as a perpetual experience, there is simply no need for any disruption to the causal flow of physical events. A deterministic universe can chug along just fine.
And if determinism is false, it doesn't make any difference because exercising free will does not mean behaving randomly. Voluntary actions neither feel random, nor are random.
Seth uses the act of making tea to illustrate features that characterize most, if not all, experiences of volition.
The first defining feature is the feeling that I am doing what I want to do.
...Although making tea was fully consistent with my beliefs, values, and desires, I did not choose to have these beliefs, values, and desires. I wanted a cup of tea, but I did not choose to want a cup of tea.
Voluntary actions are voluntary not because they descend from an immaterial soul, nor because they ascend from a quantum soup. They are voluntary because they express what I, as a person, want to do, even though I cannot choose those wants.
As nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it, "Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills."
Then Seth talks about something that Sam Harris emphasizes in his arguments against free will. To me this is a very strong argument.
The second defining feature is the feeling that I could have done otherwise... I made tea. Could I have done otherwise? In one sense, yes. There's coffee in the kitchen too, so I could have made coffee. And after making the tea, it certainly seemed to me that I could have made coffee instead.
But I didn't want coffee, I wanted tea, and since I can't choose my wants, I made tea.
Given the precise state of the universe at the time, which includes the state of my body and brain, all of which have prior causes, whether deterministic or not, stretching all the way back to my origin as a tea-drinking semi-Englishman and beyond, I could not have done otherwise.
You can't replay the same tape and expect a different outcome, apart from uninteresting differences due to randomness. The relevant phenomenology -- the feeling that I could have done otherwise -- is not a transparent window onto how causality operates in the physical world.
Thus our usual conception of free will is an illusion. However, Seth says:
From another perspective, free will is not illusory at all. So long as we have relatively undamaged brains and relatively normal upbringings, each of us has a very real capacity to execute and to inhibit voluntary action, thanks to our brain's ability to control our many degrees of freedom.
This kind of freedom is both a freedom from and a freedom to.
It is a freedom from immediate causes in the world or in the body, and from coercion by authorities, hypnotists and mesmerists, or social-media pushers.
It is not, however, freedom from the laws of nature or from the causal fabric of the universe. It is a freedom to act according to our beliefs, values, and goals, to do as we wish to do, and to make choices according to who we are.
This is a much reduced conception of free will from the usual feeling of "I could have done otherwise." It's basically compatibilism, which is a greatly watered-down view of free will where determinism is compatible with acting freely.
Except, you aren't really free in the sense of being able to do something other than what you did. You're merely free to act according to what you're motivated to do -- with the cause of that motivation being outside of your control.
If someone wants to call this free will, it's because they're motivated to do so. But they aren't free to choose to believe in free will. That's a result of causes and effects, not free will.