Philosophers start with a conclusion – that free will must exist, because, well, it just must, or else the consequences for personal and social life would be too terrible. And from this they find ingenious ways to criticize scientific experiments that clearly cast significant doubt on the whole idea of “free will”.
Meanwhile, as scientific techniques continue to improve, the scientific evidence against “free will” continues to grow. “Free will” seems to be an idea continually being driven into the realm of once cherished notions like élan vital and phlogiston.
As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will. Philosophers have debated that concept for centuries, and now Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person’s actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. “We feel we choose, but we don’t,” says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London.
Part of the problem is that philosophers cannot agree how to define precisely what might be meant by “free will”. Most modern philosophers now concede that many decisions that humans make seem to be formed significantly before the decider becomes conscious of them, and, further, that the operation of a brain must conform to basic laws of physics and chemistry without the agency of some non-material “spirit”. Nevertheless, they continue to insist that, somehow or other, the ultimate actions taken by humans are governed by some unidentified process that, up to the last instant, gives a person the power to “will” a particular decision and tip the balance one way or the other. Philosophers have yet to explain how, just because this process isn’t fully understood, it deserves to be regarded as “free will”.
“Free will” certainly has the appearance of being a “God of the gaps“, in which some mysterious process is invoked to “explain” what is not yet fully understood scientifically.