My position on free will has been evolving. For the latest and better explanation, please see "Why Hard Determinism Fails".
Over the course of a year or so, as I blogged and debated about free will, I came to realize that the term, "free will", misleads the debate. People think of free will as will power or volition or some other concept that requires an active, conscious, "free", choice. Such thinking inexorably leads to the philosophical problem of (mind/body) duality. Duality contradicts determinism by breaking the chain of causality. Causality, in turn, is the foundation of our physical laws and can be empirically confirmed by anybody, anytime, by observation. Contradicting causality is an invitation to argue nonsense.
Despite these seemingly iron-clad reasons to deny free will, I've always believed in free will. Not unbridled free will; rather, free will constrained by causality. Such a free will is better thought of as self-determinism: the ability to understand and anticipate causality and, by doing so, influence our futures in self-determined ways. Most of what follows will attempt to clarify what that means.
I'm a compatibilist. I believe that free will is compatible with causality/determinism. In fact, I will argue that free will is a consequence of human interaction with the world around us. This is a key concept. Free will is a consequence (effect): not a goal we pursue or stance we adopt (cause). Free will is an integral part of the human condition because of our human imagination. Imagination gives us a temporal advantage over causality by mentally playing out potential scenarios that might occur. This process is automatic. We're inured to it. By thus anticipating the future, this information becomes an important part of the causal factors flooding our brains. Prescient imagination is a process of mental feedback that (usually) prepares us for the future -- it's at the heart of self-determinism. And self-determinism IS free will.
Because time is linear, the future hasn't happened yet. Future events unfold everywhere simultaneously, yet are locally unique. The birth and death of an entire galaxy is irrelevant to us if it's so remote we can't even see it. While the senseless death of a starving child in Africa is tragic and heartbreaking, you'll undoubtedly never know about it. The point is that causality permeates the entire universe and makes its mark on everything: whether or not any particular event seems momentous or even noteworthy. But how do these events affect the future? Will anything we do make a difference in the grand scheme of things? The Big Bang has predetermined the demise of the universe . . . so aren't our own lives equally predetermined?
With this frame of reference, I propose that the future does NOT exist and can only be predetermined for inanimate objects (unless they fall under the control of animate beings). I would go so far as to claim that intelligent life can't be intelligent without a temporal advantage over causality. Wherever intelligent life leaves an impression, the future is far from predetermined. What I'm talking about is the distinction between animate and inanimate modes of response to causality -- the difference between us and rocks. This distinction is most clear when we use humans as our example. This is because humans, unlike other life forms, clearly manifest ALL the key phenomena of life -- motility, consciousness, intelligence and, yes, free will.
The law of causality states that: "every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause". This is true of both animate and inanimate objects. The difference between the animate and inanimate modes of response to causality is that inanimate objects have only one potential reaction to an event while animate beings have variable potential reactions to an event. One major reason for this is that animate beings are complex systems. They have many functional parts that integrate, holistically, into single entities. Animate beings are much more complex and much less predictable than inanimate objects. Although this distinction is important, it's not essential to my argument for compatibilism.
Human identity and experience presents a problem for determinism. We all live as if we have free will: we work, play, think and plan as if we have free will. On the other hand, we can see that causality determines all events. How do we reconcile the difference? First, we need to acknowledge there might not be a difference. What if human interaction with the world around us (causality) actually creates free will?
Allowing no exceptions to causality, we must accept that effects can't exist without a cause. Therefore, the processes of the brain, such as memory, thought, analysis and imagination, can be thought of as effects caused by the brain. Of these effects, imagination is most relevant to free will . . . because imagination can be prescient. We can extrapolate cause and effect into the future to imagine potential scenarios that might occur. We then evaluate these potential scenarios and gauge the likelihood (and to what extent) they might actually happen. This is, essentially, the process of planning. We use our experience and intelligence to estimate future outcomes, then plan the steps and contingencies necessary to best ensure -- or avoid -- those outcomes. Of course, short term, simple, plans are more likely to succeed than long term, complicated, plans. Depending on our skill at prognostication, our success rates vary from person to person. But, on the whole, short term plans usually succeed. I know this, without question, from my professional experience as a project manager.
How does planning relate to free will? Here's the interesting, awesome, part. Our ability to mentally anticipate cause and effect represents a temporal advantage over causality. Causality must wait for the future to unfold in the present but we can keep steps ahead of causality by extrapolating it into the future. In other words, we can (in our imagination) go where causality can't . . . and bring back conclusions that greatly affect our actions. Steered by these conclusions, our actions take us, step by step, through specific futures.
We all act based on forecasts of events likely in our potential futures. There are other causal factors involved, like experience, heredity, education, circumstances, etc., but it's prescient imagination that steers our actions in self-directed ways. When determinism meets human imagination, it becomes self determinism: free will.
The claim that free will (volition) is antithetical to determinism is a false dichotomy stemming from any assertion that assumes free will violates causality/determinism. If that's how you define free will then, of course, free will would be impossible. After all, EVERYTHING is determined. Right? Free will is not a conscious process or goal of itself, requiring effort to exercise: it's an on-going, natural, human, reaction (effect) to the world around us (cause).
Volition, of itself, is not free will. That would make free will indeterminate -- and we know that's not possible: EVERYTHING is determined. Volition, desires, plans -- whatever you want to call them -- are just causal factors (albeit, important ones) that combine with a flood of other causal factors to influence our actions.
The compatibilist view sees free will as natural and within the confines of physical laws. Undetermined or indeterminate actions would be anything but free will: acting without reason or purpose is not free will. Neither is acting randomly. So, claiming that free will is not deterministic means that, if we do have free will, then we must act without reason or purpose, or we must act randomly, or some combination thereof. This is, of course, nonsense.
We KNOW we act with purpose. We don't stumble through life continually shocked to find ourselves doing things we don't want to do. That would make planning impossible! We KNOW we've planned our own dinners, careers, families, retirements and funerals. Our experiences represent continuous empirical evidence for free will.
Our ability to plan is so natural and human that we take it for granted. We're inured to it. The future and planning is a larger consideration in our lives than most people realize. Planning, as a prescient form of imagination, is caused by the brain's interaction with the world around us (causality). Free will is the effect -- the consequence -- of our prescient imaginations.
It's a paradox. We have no choice but to exercise free will. We are causally self-determined. Free will is a necessary and natural part of our humanity.
Our individual destinies are NOT written in the stars (may the force be with you) -- our destinies are ours to make. We (as well as ALL life forms) might eventually face extinction as the universe grows cold and fades away. Human destiny might be extinction but our individual destinies are ours to make. Most of us will die obscure deaths but a select few -- as long as humanity survives -- will be remembered by history because they exercised their free will to fundamentally change our world.