Will is free or it is not will. Determinists argue that there is no free will. In fact, there is no other kind.
In short, there is a great deal of confusion about free will and what it means. Free will is what beings exercise in the face of a multitude of constraints. Every being has genetic capabilities and limitations, physical and environmental constraints, disabilities and inabilities, intellectual, physical and emotional capabilities, deficits and surroundings that limit its range of action or expand it. Free will is what a being does amidst all these potentialities and restrictions.
A simple example. One being is being chased by another. The first being may walk away coolly, may turn and stand and fight, hide behind a bush or go left or right. It may circle back behind the aggressor, perhaps to try to hit it with a rock or anything else that is close to hand. Or the being may make a great display of rage, anger or bluster to scare off the pursuer, or make itself small in the hope that the pursuer will lose interest. Or, perhaps, it will fall to its knees—if it has knees—and beg for mercy. All of these actions are choices, Each is freely made notwithstanding the constraints of the chase and its circumstances.
A less dramatic example is a child being given corn flakes for breakfast. The child can eat his corn flakes or refuse them. If pressed, he can throw them up in the air or eat a spoonful and spit them out. He can scream that he wants Coco Puffs or scrambled eggs instead, or he can, if he has the strength, bend his spoon and throw it on the floor or do the same with the bowl of cornflakes. Whether consciously or unconsciously motivated, these are all choices of the will.
If the child decides to eat his cornflakes, he can do so one flake at a time or in spoonfuls, have them with milk or without, can demand strawberries or sugar, or refuse to take a bite until he gets a second glass of orange juice or his parents give him a spanking. In fact, the child has as many possible moves as he would in playing a game of chess. The youngster can even get up from the table and lock himself in the bathroom until his parents agree to serve Coco Puffs in the future. Such is life and the nature of human will and willful children.
The question of free will for man is always what he will do in the matter he is facing. There is always a choice, even if the range of options is quite limited. If there is a gun to your head you can nevertheless try to snatch it away, provoke the gun holder to shoot or beg him not to, pretend to faint, try to kick the gunman in a sensitive place, scream for help, surrender your valuables or do nothing and see what happens.
Determinists believe that humans and other animals are like robots and that, as biological machines, everything such beings do and think is determined by their nature and circumstances. Of course, determinists also believe that they are determined to believe this deterministic drivel and that makes them very poor proponents for their own pre-determined position. Determinists are generally not very good at establishing and arguing for a position, as they must start by confessing that they had no choice but to make those same arguments, however specious.
Putting aside determinism’s inherent self-contradiction, each person is responsible for his actions whether he believes in free will or not. Determinism is an ineffective defense to a murder charge. Or even to robbing a bank or poor performance at work. We do not accept the defense that “my brain made me do it”. Society functions based on an assumption of free will although this is, of course, not sufficient to validate the concept, except to say that free will is accepted almost universally as a practical matter. Society could not function otherwise.
One of the many sources of confusion in discussing human will is what the concept itself means. Given this confusion and the obvious redundancy of the term “free will,” I will define it in a very simple and hopefully non-controversial manner. Free will is the choice of an action taken by a being in what it perceives—whether consciously or unconsciously—to be in its own interests.
Only living beings have interests and that is what distinguishes them from machines and other inanimate objects which lack desires and goals of their own. A watchmaker wants his watches to tell time. The watch itself does not care whether it does so.
Free will exists whether you are conscious of it or not. Free will need not be consciously exercised but is the act of the whole being. Scientists have constructed ill-conceived experiments that show that a subject’s brain made a choice before the subject’s conscious mind was aware of it. This experiment merely proves free will rather than disproving it, because it demonstrates that the subject made a decision for itself.
It is the decision that demonstrates free will, not whether it was made consciously or unconsciously. That decision was the act of the subject as an entire being. The experiment merely shows that humans make decisions using their unconscious mind in parallel with their consciousness awareness. This natural parallel processing of the human brain has no bearing on the validity of determinism or free will.
The fact that the unconscious mind and the mechanisms of the brain make decisions before they become fully or even partially conscious, shows that they are acts of will by the being. That is why people often sleep on a decision before waking up sure of the decision they are making. The unconscious analysis and rumination during sleep is part of the nature of free decision making. The decision was not somehow determined by a computer inside the being’s brain while he was asleep. Rather the brain uses its massively parallel analytical functions to help the person arrive at a decision he is comfortable with while asleep.
What is particularly interesting is how many proponents of religion, atheism and evolutionary biology have arrived at conclusions about free will and determinism that contradict their own most basic premises. The Christian religion proposes an all-powerful all-knowing god that exists in all times and places and knows the future of each man. Yet Christianity posits that the Christian god somehow gave man free will while at the same time retaining knowledge of how he would exercise it. This is either having one’s cake and eating it or it means that Christian free will is an illusion because the Christian god already knows what will happen to each of us.
Atheists on the other hand believe in no god and therefore have freed themselves from the idea of an omniscient controller. Yet many atheists argue that people are biological machines and through knowledge that can be gained through the laws of science all of their behavior is predictable. In effect, they are imagining an omniscient controller themselves, namely the laws of nature, evolutionary biology and the mechanisms of the brain. Having thrown off one ideological yoke they have merely hitched themselves to another.
Some of these evolutionary biologists go further. Because the conscious mind and conscious choices are such clear examples of the exercise of will, some scientists start with the assumption that humans are the only beings who possess consciousness. Some go on to argue that even human consciousness is an illusion. This strained and specious assertion is necessary because, without consciousness in the way, it is much easier to argue for behavioral determinism.
Consciousness is just the thing that demonstrates free will conclusively. Thus determinists must work overtime in straining to argue that there is only “determined” will. Furthermore, they argue that those who believe that animals have consciousness have the burden of proving it! This is a particularly ballsy assertion since we already know that the animal we understand best (humans) clearly has consciousness and makes conscious decisions (or decisions that most all humans would insist are consciously made). It is therefore up to the determinists to prove that dogs, cats and other animals—that to all intents and purposes appear to be making conscious decisions—are not acting consciously. The belief that animals are different from humans and act only as preprogrammed machines when they come to wake you up with a kiss in the morning some mornings but not others (depending on their mood) seems preposterous and is at best unproven.
Daniel C. Dennett—an otherwise clever scientist—believes that animals are competent without consciousness; that their behavior is instinctive and genetically determined. This is an ideological argument not a scientific one, because Dennett has not sustained his burden of proof that animals—unlike humans—lack consciousness and do not make conscious decisions. He has no basis for this assumption and does not even assert one.
Dennett concedes that humans universally believe that they do make conscious choices, but argues that this perception of consciousness is an illusion. But Dennett fails to explain what he means by the term “illusion” and why this illusion is any different than any of the other perceptual illusions that make up all human experience. Perhaps he believes he is a good arbiter of what is reality and what is an illusion. His readers might well wonder whether Dennett himself is not “competent but without comprehension” as he himself argues about all other animals and humans.
Dennett argues that consciousness is like a user interface. It does not reveal what is going on inside the computer. That is a good analogy except that consciousness has a user. It is a tool of the being to which it belongs just as the being’s arms, legs and hands are tools. When the being is being chased, it organizes its awareness in its own interests and consciously brings its legs and arms into use and uses its conscious mind to pick the best escape route. Dennett says that a gazelle that stotts (jumps in the air) while being chased by a lion does so unconsciously and is not making a conscious choice. But he says that with no evidence, as Dennett manifestly has not been inside the mind of even a single gazelle. Dennett is making an ideological not a scientific assertion. He asserts it but does not prove it. Like Dawkins, Dennett does not like the idea of conscious beings that make choices because it is inconsistent with his determinist worldview.
The further idea that consciousness is an illusion different from other perceptual illusions is not just counter-intuitive, it is wrong. It is certainly true that people do not have conscious access to the underlying mechanisms that bring their thoughts into consciousness where they can be analyzed at the conscious level and communicated to others. However, the consciousness that they do have when they are analyzing perceptions at the conscious level is no more an illusion than any other aspect of human experience.
The assertion that we “know” something already includes the perceptual infirmities inherent in human knowledge gathering. When we see something there remains an unbridgeable gulf between our perception and the “reality” of the thing we are perceiving. But this is true of all perception not just perception of consciousness. So consciousness is no more an illusion than any other human perception.
Consciousness is just another tool that we as beings use to make decisions for ourselves. We have already learned that human beings can only experience themselves, and never anything outside of themselves. They only have access to their own perceptions not to the world itself. Human experience is rooted in perceptual subjectivity and consciousness is no more nor less invalid a perceptual tool than sight, sound, touch, taste or smell or any other observer-dependent source of information. In fact, our consciousness is an important tool for helping us—along with our unconscious processes—to organize our perceptions and develop responses to them.
The universe can include both cause and effect and free will. They are ultimately compatible concepts. The irreducible randomness of quantum mechanics gives us a probabilistic rather than deterministic view of the universe. Ideological approaches like determinism cannot produce good science; they can only produce confirmations of the ideological bias of the investigators. Now that we have freed will from the mindless slavery of determinism, we can move on to freeing man from other mythical belief systems. Determinism is, after all, only one false absolutist ideology among many.