What are your thoughts on machines that can predict what you’re going to do in the next five minutes? Do you think that everything that happens now in the universe was causally determined by some event(s) that happened before it? When professional philosophers check people’s intuitions it looks as though sometimes people generally agree that we have free will even if the universe is guided by the natural laws that we learn about in physics, chemistry, and biology and sometimes they do not.
People just don’t seem to have intuitions about these sorts of cases and the questions that are raised by them. People have intuitions about which path would be shorter to work, what color shirt would look best with their complexion but not whether the laws of the universe somehow limit the human capacity to act freely. Not only ordinary people but philosophers since the time of the ancient Greeks have had trouble coming to a consensus on the nature of human freedom, demonstrating that they too do not have uniform intuitions about free will.
The late 20th and early 21st century have brought us reassurance from some scientists that we don’t have free will. These scientists include the physicists Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene and Lawrence Krauss; biologist Richard Dawkins; and Sam Harris, all of whom assume that if the universe acts according to physical, chemical, biological, and other natural laws then there is no room for free will. Why must we, if we want to get clear about free will, assume that free will is opposed to a universe with natural law? Why can’t free will be viewed as a natural component of our human behavior?
According to Harris in order for us to have free will we need two things—(1) we have to be the conscious sources of our own thoughts and actions and (2) if we had the ability to rewind back to earlier events in our lives, we would need to be able to make decisions differently and act differently than we otherwise did. In Harris’s book Free Will (2012), he pretty quickly dismisses the first point. He invites the reader to sit quietly and try not to think and watch how thoughts come into the noggin. We have no control over what thoughts come in during that moment but neither do we have control over what thoughts we have at any moment in our lives. We also make decisions but don’t know why we chose on the basis of some beliefs and desires and not on the basis of others.
With regard to the second criteria Harris says that if you think about it, there’s just no way that you could act differently than you did in a situation. Think about the last time that you wanted to order a steak at a restaurant. If you were to go back to that exact moment and situation and have all the same thoughts and desires you are going to order that steak. It would take divine intervention for you not to do that. If all the physical laws of the universe are fixed our identical beliefs and desires dictate that we really can’t act any other way than we do in any given moment.
Among the philosophers that are dissatisfied with Harris’s account of free will is Eddy Nahmias, who believes that you do not need the components Harris claims to have free will. You don’t need to be the conscious source of your thoughts and actions nor do you need the ability to have acted otherwise. Nahmias in The New York Times writes:
Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.
For Nahmias, free will is the set of relative capacities of a person to act from thoughts, desires, and principles and it sits comfortably with our understanding of the natural world. On Nahmias’s account, we can still accept that our bodies as well as everything else in the universe is a result of physical, chemical, and biological laws and still believe free will is a property of human beings (and perhaps other biological organisms). Furthermore, free will makes sense as a real explanatory feature of our behavior in the social sciences.
In reply to Nahmias Harris writes in Free Will:
There is no question that human beings can imagine and plan for the future, weigh competing desires, etc.—and that losing these capacities would greatly diminish us. External and internal pressures of various kinds can be present or absent while a person imagines, plans, and acts—and such pressures determine our sense of whether [someone] is morally responsible for this behavior. However, these phenomena have nothing to do with free will.
If our goal is to understand human behavior in ordinary life, in our legal system and in the social sciences, what is wrong with an account of free will like Nahmias’? Isn’t the ability to act according to what you think, plan for, and desire enough in terms of a free will worth having?