Most of us don't even think about it. We just go about our lives, making choices and accepting responsibility for them (and sometimes trying to avoid responsibility for them!). But do we really have free will, or are we just programmed?
what is free will?
Free will means the ability to choose between two or more alternatives, without being predetermined by our genes, our brain processes and cause and effect to make a particular choice - the ability to initiate an action, or be a cause of an action, that wouldn't have occurred otherwise, and which we were not compelled to cause.
The Oxford Handbook of Free Will says: "we believe we have free will when (a) it is "up to us" what we choose from an array of alternative possibilities, and (b) the origin or source of our choices and actions is in us and not in anyone or anything else over which we have no control."
Some have defined free will in "lesser" terms, as the absence of external compulsion. However, if we have no inner free will, then our entire selves are the result of external actions leading to our birth and genetics, over which we had no control. So this definition doesn't seem to be what most of us consider to be free will.
do we actually have free will?
No-one doubts we are in many things not free to choose (e.g. to fly unaided), nor that our genes determine much about us. The question is, do we have any choice?
We seem to have free will. We make choices, blame people for their choices, present arguments we expect to influence other people, and have legal systems that make people responsible for their actions as if they had true choice. But is all this an illusion?
Naturalists, who believe that the space-time universe is all there is, find it hard to avoid the conclusion that everything is determined by the laws of the universe and cause and effect. Our brains function on simple and deterministic laws of physics, and there is no "us" outside our brains to control our thoughts. For naturalists, our brain processes seem to be predetermined.
Biologist Francis Crick: "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."
Professor William Provine, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University: "Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent."
"Compatibilists" believe that although our brains are determined, we still have free will, though I cannot see how that can be. "Incompatibilists" believe that because our brains are determined, we have no free will, which seems like a logical conclusion to me.
Some theists believe that God's sovereignty, especially in setting up the universe, means that we cannot have free will either, but most believe God gives us the dignity of free will, and thereby holds us responsible for our actions.
Most theists would also be dualists, that is, they believe God has made us as spiritual-physical beings, and our minds or selves have a dual nature, which allows us to escape from the determinism of naturalism.
what can we live with?
It is one thing to have a theoretical view. Most people seem to be natural dualists, believing we have genuine free will and moral responsibility. But this seems inconsistent for those who are naturalists and atheists. But although it may be inconsistent, it may be difficult to get away from.
One option for naturalists could be that we have evolved to think we have free will even though we don't, because it is advantageous to think so. For example, one study has shown that those who believe we lack free will are more likely to be dishonest (perhaps showing the link between free will and moral responsibility).
So if an atheist believes there can be no true free will, can they actually live as if this is true, or will their minds revolt at the thought?
And does our common perception indicate that there is more in the universe than some people say, perhaps even pointing to God?