The concept of free will is intimately tangled up with the idea of responsibility. Are you responsible for your actions? To what degree are your actions predetermined? If they are predetermined, how can we hold anyone accountable for their actions? Does the idea of moral responsibility even make sense?
Libertarian free will
The classic definition of free will is a will free of the laws of nature. That is, you are free to choose independent of the workings of the universe. This version requires a belief in mind-body dualism, the idea that the mind is an independent non-material spirit free from physical constraints. If you do believe in this kind of substance dualism, then you would probably believe in libertarian free will (the word ‘libertarian’ here has nothing necessarily to do with the political philosophy).
However, if you consider the mind to be the brain, or that it arises completely from the brain’s operations, then the laws of physics make libertarian free will difficult, if not impossible, to accept. The workings of your brain are completely controlled by the laws of physics and every choice you make is ultimately determined by those laws, even if it is unlikely it will ever be possible to predict them.
What about quantum effects? If quantum uncertainty enters into mental processing, wouldn’t that mean that our choices are not really predetermined? There’s no real compelling evidence that quantum uncertainty does enter into mental processing any more than it enters into other physical processes such as computer chip operations (which would fail if they weren’t deterministic).
Even if quantum uncertainty is a factor in mental processing, that still wouldn’t save libertarian free will. The random quantum events might save the decisions from being predetermined, but they wouldn’t make the decisions free from that quantum randomness, free from the laws of nature.
Are we done then? Many purists will insist that we are. However, most philosophers who reject dualism still see free will as existing. Why? Is it simply a lack of nerve on their part? Or are there reasons for their position?
Our decisions may be metaphysically determined, but that is no guidance when we are faced with an actual decision. We still have to evaluate different courses of action and make decisions. The fact that we can evaluate different options and then make a choice implies a certain type of freedom.
Purists will insist that nothing has changed, that this freedom is an illusion, being ultimately only the workings of neurons and synapses effected by electrical inputs from the senses, in other words, of the laws of nature. This is true, but only in the same sense that this blog post is an illusion.
Strictly speaking, this blog post doesn’t exist. You are looking at patterns of pixels on a screen, which were formed from communications of magnetic patterns stored on a hard drive in a datacenter somewhere. You can’t point to the post anywhere without someone insisting that you’re pointing at something else.
Of course, if the post doesn’t exist, then what am I writing, and what are you reading? At some level, the post certainly does exist as a useful pragmatic concept. (Perhaps you feel this post’s content lacks value, but it’s still productive for you to think of it as something that exists that lacks value.) The post exists at a level of abstraction above transistor states and molecular magnetic patterns. A blog post is an emergent concept that exists on top of those lower level constituents.
In the same manner, our freedom to weigh options and make mental determinations exist, at a certain level of abstraction, as an emergent phenomenon. This recognition that we still have choices to make, that at a certain level of abstraction, we are still free to choose among available options, leads to compatiblist versions of free will.
Compatibilism is, of course, controversial, most notably among neuroscientists. But the controversy is ultimately a definitional one. It boils down to the question, is the term ‘free will’ still a useful one once we’ve given up on the libertarian version?
Among the experiences that affect us is learning knowledge of the consequences of our actions. I know that if I commit illegal actions, and I’m caught, that there will be consequences. I also know that if I commit immoral actions that aren’t necessarily illegal, I could still face consequences for my reputation. This knowledge, among other things, affects my choices.
Consider two cases. In the first, we have Bart, a person who had a bad childhood and lives in poor economic conditions, which leads him into a situation where he commits a crime. In the second, we have Joe, who has a brain tumor that causes him to have delusions, which cause him to commit a crime.
Which one, Bart or Joe, acted with free will? Which one should be held accountable for their actions. Most people would say Bart should be held accountable, should be punished, but that Joe should receive treatment. But why? Both are victims of their biology and environment. Why shouldn’t both just receive treatment?
I think the answer boils down to the fact that it is productive to hold Bart accountable for his actions. It will have a deterrent effect, at least to some degree, on others with Bart’s background. Many people have bad childhoods and live in poor economic conditions. Holding Bart accountable may have an effect on their decisions.
But it’s not productive to hold Joe, with the brain tumor, accountable. Punishing Joe would be unlikely to affect the actions of others with brain tumors. Therefore, we would consider Joe to have mitigating circumstances, that he did not act with free will.
Of course, in holding anyone accountable, we should remember our lack of libertarian free will, and show as much mercy as possible while being compatible with deterrence. It’s only by the whims of chance that we weren’t born with their nature and lived their experiences.
Free will, from a pragmatic point of view, means simply a will free from coercion, physical restraint, brain abnormalities, or any other unusual constraints that would preclude the usefulness of holding someone accountable for their actions. It doesn’t mean freedom from the workings of normally functioning brain or the laws of physics. And it doesn’t mean freedom from our experiences.
The people who say that libertarian free will does not exist are right. The people who say that compatibilist free will exists are also right. Once libertarian free will is ruled out, the remaining debate is a definitional one. And like most such debates, it tends to be endless and pointless.
It’s important to understand what the limits of our freedom are, but also to understand that those limits should not absolve us of responsibility for our actions, except in extraordinary conditions.