To determinists, our perception of personal freedom is a side effect of consciousness that, ironically, developed from a combination of natural laws and prior constraints in the pathway of human evolution. This consciousness gives each of us a sense of personal identity that allows us to perceive that we are somehow separate and independent from the rest of the world. We seem to be free agents, exempt from external constraints. But as Leo Tolstoy observed in War and Peace, we cannot easily consider ourselves free when we recall prior sequences of events that limited our choices and compelled us toward certain courses of action. The military generals in Tolstoy’s epic imagine they are controlling the fates of entire armies and even nations, but countless historical contingencies they are unable or unwilling to consider rigidly determine their every action. What it all comes down to, as philosophers from Friedrich Nietzsche to Galen Strawson have argued, is that we cannot be a causa sui, or the ultimate cause of ourselves. We had no say in the forces that produced us, and so we cannot be free in any ultimate sense of the word.
Free will is simply an illusion conjured by our ignorance of the causes affecting our behavior. This is what Baruch Spinoza meant when he quipped that if a rock possessed consciousness, it would believe that it fell of its own free will. The deeper we look at the various determinants bearing upon our actions, the more free will seems to be an abstraction without meaning in the real world. This seems to be true even if, as philosopher P. F. Strawson argued in a celebrated paper, belief in free will is a deeply ingrained component of human ethical reflection — we believe in free will because denying freedom undercuts the health of our social relationships. Someone who could know the myriad effects impacting our behavior would see that our every action is completely determined and predictable. As the mathematician Laplace famously argued,
“An intellect which at any given moment knew all the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that comprise it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit its data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom: for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain, and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”
…How, then, does free will work? We do not completely understand, but we have clues. And just as we needed the mathematical development of calculus to clearly resolve Zeno’s paradox, we may find that the burgeoning mathematics of complexity theory will finally help us dispel our conceptual confusions about free will. Currently, it seems probable that complexity theory, together with our growing understanding of cognitive neuroscience, will throw much light on the process of making willed decisions. We will better understand how the complex arrangement of neurons in our brains leads to emergent states of conscious awareness, and the conscious mind feeds back on its neural networks to place itself in alternate conscious states. With time, we will also better comprehend how the brain converts sensory stimuli and knowledge of our environment into neural impulses and becomes part of the intricate network of causes and effects at work in our conscious minds. Finally, we will realize the conceptual confusions that cause us to see determinism and rational choice as incompatible, and will renounce our error. We will live in a deterministic world without fear, for we will no longer see determinism as a threat to the free will we cherish.
Phil Molé from his recent article: Zeno’s Paradox
and the Problem of Free Will