When we talk about the question of free will, it often seems that we approach the subject rather differently from the way we would look into any other unanswered question about the world. Usually, when we don’t know about something, we ask “what is going on here?”, and examine the observable phenomena, form hypotheses, put them to the test, and so forth. But with the questions surrounding determinism and how it might affect our lives, this productive convention is often stood quite neatly on its head.
Rather than asking ourselves what it even means to say that we have “free will” — in other words, rather than asking what, exactly, we think is taking place when we make a “free” decision, and how it might possibly be so — we simply announce that regardless of what it is, exactly, we must have it, because it would be awful if we didn’t. We then use this little pep talk as the basis for an elaborate structure of metaphysical, ethical, and even theological reasoning, all of which is, of course, no sturdier than than the fogbank upon which it is built.
All of this stems from our apparent dread of the possibility that the ordinary causal processes that, as far as we can tell, order and impel the behavior of everything else in the entire Universe might apply to us as well. In order to support the edifice described just above, we are willing to imagine that out of all the vastness of the Cosmos, and everything contained therein, a special exemption from the regularities of Nature has been made in the case of a small but complex blob of goo housed in the cranium of a modest and recently-arrived bipedal ape. Put as charitably as possible, this seems a bit of a stretch.
So why not go with the simplifying assumption that our brains, and the minds they support, do in fact proceed according to deterministic principles, like everything else? Indeed we do seem to realize that this is the most likely assumption — but rather than accepting it, we hastily declare it off limits, put up the yellow police tape, and announce instead that we stand in the humbling presence of a Mystery. It is as if, to paraphrase Dennett’s discussion of this point in Elbow Room [pp 14-15], that we fear that science threatens to reveal a Dread Secret: one that, once learned, will reduce us to helpless, paralyzed lumps. Note that it is not the fact of determinism that appears to make the difference; determinism, if true, has always been true, and we’ve done just fine so far. No, it seems, instead, that what we must prevent at all costs is our believing it to be true. But are we really justified, having been told all along that “the truth will set us free”, in believing that it will do exactly the opposite?
I think not. But we have a lot more careful scouting to do, I think, before we can see why this should be so. In particular, we will have to look very carefully at what it is we think we have, what it is we want, and why.