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Is free will an illusion?

We're autonomous

The concept of free will is a key part of the Western philosophic tradition. Philosophers have thought that unless we have free will and unless we consider people responsible for what they choose then a lot of law and morality become incoherent. If I intentionally choose to steal a watch that's one thing. If the watch falls into my bag and I inadvertently carry it away that's another thing. Even though in both cases I've carried somebody else's property away. Similarly the concept of free will is seen to underlie praising people for their actions. They are praised much less if the action wasn't the result of their free will.

But how can there possibly be free will?l If one thinks that reality is deterministic, that every effect has a cause, there seems to be no place for a 'free' choice. Since 'free' has been taken by many to mean 'uncaused' in this context. Some think that the possibility of free will indicates that reality must be indeterministic in some sense. And indeed people often point to quantum mechanics as showing that the universe is indeterminate and that this makes free will possible.

But think about it - would you really consider a state where your actions were uncaused a state of freedom? You're sitting in your chair. You get up and put sugar on the cat - for no reason. Then you scratch your head - for no reason. Then laugh hilariously - for no reason. If you saw a person acting like that would you consider them to be free? If you found yourself acting like that would you be rejoicing your freedom.

The concept of free will is linked to a certain view of consciousness. In this view we are controlled by consciousness. That is, we gain information about reality and then 'we' decide what to do. That was a popular story for a long time - but that doesn't seem to be the way it works. Introspection (at least for me) reveals that I can never find the time when I am making a decision. Instead the decision is made in some way and I become aware of that.

So does this all mean that free will is an illusion; that we may seem to be free but really aren't? Thinkers like Dan Dennett and Sam Harris who have been writing about this are derided by critics for taking this stance - that free will is an illusion. That we have internally the illusion of free will that is part of our experience of reality, and we have externally they myth of free will that underpins our legal and moral thinking. They are derided for 'explaining away' free will and consciousness.

But maybe something more interesting is happening. Both Dennett and Harris acknowledge that we feel free. They don't say this feeling is an illusion. In fact they talk about the feeling in detail, from an experiential level to the function such a feeling would have. You don't talk about illusions that way. But they do say pretty clearly that the old folk philosophical ideas that were stimulated by those experiences were just wrong. Let's be clear - the experiences aren't illusions. It's just that the ancient explanations for them are wrong.

How can we think of free will? Perhaps we can start by dropping the connotation of 'without cause' from the idea of 'free'. We can replace the 'without cause' idea with 'for my own reasons'. Doing things for my own reasons is compatible with determinism.

Admittedly that presents the issue on a very abstract level and lots of work needs to be done to ground that abstract level in physical reality. But it seems to me that that work is already well advanced.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.