Many neuroscientists argue that “free will is an illusion” because our brains are responsible for all of our actions and behavior. Some go even further to say that because of this, we may be justified in misbehaving, cheating, breaking laws, etc. because free will is a precondition for deserving blame. This idea can have dangerous implications for society because without having free will how can we be blamed for any wrongs we commit?
Scientists see the brain as a physical entity, but a very complex one that allows us to be conscious and unique, and gives us the capacity to comprehend, converse, and create things that never existed before. However, they are divided in their views of how it connects to free will:
The ones that believe we do not actually have free will think of it as a spiritual, immaterial process, like a “ghost in the machine,” (Haggard). These people believe that we are detached from the causal chain in our brains that lead to our actions, and that all our decisions are just like chemical reactions in the brain.
“How can I call a will ‘mine’ if I don’t even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?”
-neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes
The ones that believe science actually proves that it isn’t an illusion believe it is not a “magical process” and that it can be explained as a whole in terms of its individual components. These people believe that we have the capacity for conscious deliberation and self-control which ties with free will. It is a fact that the brain generates activity before we realize and actually make our decisions, but scientists say this does not prove that free will is an illusion. They say it just shows that there are discernible patterns of neural activity that precede a decision.
Perhaps the argument comes down to whether we are conscious of our decision making process, which is also difficult to explain. It is obvious that we are conscious for many decisions we make, such as when we are planning a trip or deciding what to eat, but what about for spontaneous decisions or reactions? For the latter examples, it is difficult to say whether we are conscious in those decision making processes, suggesting we did not have free will when making those decisions.
This debate on whether free will is real has many political implications. For example, Thomas Hobbes was opposed to the idea of free will.
“…no liberty can be inferred to the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to do.”
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
He believed that God was the cause of every action but that, unless physically forced, any decision made by a person was free. On the other hand, John Locke believed that “free will” was not a compatible term.
“Concerning a man’s liberty, there yet, therefore, is raised this further question,Whether a man be free to will? which I think is what is meant, when it is disputed whether the will be free.”
-John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
He believed that the term “free” can only apply to the person, and not to the will, which is determined by the mind, which determines the action. In his view, a person is free to think or not to think, but the will is not.
What else does this debate on free will imply, and what would other thinkers say? Do we actually have free will, our own conscious ability to make decisions? Or is it a nonsensical term like Locke believes? How would we be able to actually show whether it exists or not, knowing that all our thoughts and actions come from our brain, a mere physical entity but with a possible “soul” or “spiritual” content.