The idea of human beings having free will is so powerful that it would seem to be impossible to dislodge. Having free will seems to be so essential to the way that we view ourselves that denying its existence seems like denying our very humanity, transforming ourselves into mindless automatons, and thus we are loathe to relinquish it. Isaac Beshevis Singer captured this struggle well when he said, “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”
Oddly enough, I gave up the idea of free will quite easily, soon after I gave up the idea of god, and for a similar reason. Like some liberal Christians, especially those with some scientific training, I had struggled with the question of how a god could actually intervene in the world because intervention would require the ability for god to move things, and I could not see how a non-material entity could exert a force on material objects without violating the laws of physics. To try to get around this problem, I arrived at the position that, for some ineffable reason, god had decided that he would achieve his goals only by influencing people through their minds to do his will and alter the course of events, rather than altering them directly. Humans were the agents of god’s actions in the world and the only way they were manifested. So the perpetual struggle was with god trying to make us be good by using our minds (of which conscience was a part) to compete with our baser natures.
This kind of rationalization worked as long as I shared with most people the idea that while the brain is a material object made up of neurons and other physical stuff, there is an ‘I’ (which religious people might identify with the soul) that transcends the material, that exists apart from it and yet is able to influence it. It is this ‘I’ that has free will and interacts with god. Like most people, I simply took this as a given, as self-evidently true, and hence did not examine it too closely.
But that belief soon fell apart when I started studying the nature of the mind and brain and thinking more carefully about how god could influence my thoughts. Even if god could communicate with the mind, how could this immaterial ‘I’ influence the material brain? It quickly became clear that what I thought of as the mind had to be entirely a product of the workings of the brain. That meant that god could only influence my thoughts by acting on the neurons on my brain and this brought me back full circle to the same problem as before, since the problem of god nudging neurons seemed no different to god acting on any other material objects.
Hence if everything is the product of natural laws working on material objects, then that must apply to the brain too. The brain is a material object functioning according to natural laws and hence our minds and our sense of free will are products of that material brain. What else could it be?
The interesting thing about my assertion about the absence of free will is that, unlike the absence of god, we may in the near future be able to actually get convincing evidence in support of it. In my series of posts on free will that I wrote two years ago, I discussed fMRI experiments in which experimenters could, by looking at the brain images of people in the machines, predict what the test subjects would do a few seconds in advance of when the subjects themselves became aware of making the decision to act, thus implying that they did not have free will as it is commonly thought.
The criticisms of this conclusion were that the accuracy of the predictions were only of the order of 60% or so and that the tasks involved (pressing a button with either the right or left hand) were highly rudimentary and did not correspond to real world situations involving complex decision making. These criticisms are valid. But advances in technology will likely overcome these objections. It is only a matter of time before fMRI machines become compact and portable so that people can wear it on their heads like a football helmet and walk around doing everyday tasks. It is also the case that they will become more sensitive, able to be more fine-grained in their mapping of brain activity and more sensitive to subtle changes.
When you couple these hardware improvement to advances in brain mapping algorithms that will be able to better correlate changes in brain patterns with actions, it becomes just a matter of time before we have people walking around with these helmets and an experimenter observing the output in a remote location will be able to predict with great accuracy what the person is going to do (pick up a pencil, make a cup of coffee, read a newspaper, etc.) before that person is aware that they had decided to do that.
When you have a situation in which someone else can predict with great accuracy what you are going to do before you yourself are aware of wanting to do so, I think it becomes pretty clear that free will as we now understand it, in which a conscious decision precedes an act, does not exist.