There has always been a keen interest in free will, but since the publication of Sam Harris’s book Free Will that interest has intensified. Many determinists have come to stand by determinism as ardently as religionists stand by religion. The implications of this stance are obvious. If a person has no free will then punishment is rendered inhumane and one’s sense of self is reduced to that of a robot.
But a careful examination of the facts produces a great deal of hope. Free will may be defined as the ability to freely make what appears to be the best choice, but it may also be defined as the ability to define what one means by quality. In the former sense the word for free will may be “independence.” In the latter, free will is simply called “freedom of definition.”
Independence falls on a continuum. I am more independent than I was at the age of five, and I was more independent at the age of five than I was as an infant, when everything was chosen for me. It is helpful to note that I was making choices that I was convinced were the best choices before I had fully defined what I consider to be quality.
Though the process of defining what qualifies as quality is an ongoing process for much of life, it narrows to a much smaller range the older one gets. By the time a person is in his early thirties one knows what he likes and dislikes even if the justification for liking and disliking things is not thoroughly articulated. The process of changing what one considers to be quality is also ongoing, but the older one gets the more focused the picture of preference becomes. However, it is possible to acquire different tastes even if one is advanced in years. If I immerse myself in classical music I may start listening to classical music instead of rock and roll. I may come to prefer it to all other types of music.
With respect to my actions, if I am offered five choices I am always apt to pick the option that seems best. However, that choice may be acted on at my own pace, for my own reasons, and by my own insight. In this sense free will is limited to what I consider quality to be.
However, in the realm of thinking quality is not easily determined. As with the external choices there may not be an absolute favorite way of imagining or thinking of something. The way in which I evaluate something may be subject to all kinds of different cognitions, none of which is favored above any other. The fact that I have a coherent inner monologue means I am choosing my words just before I think them. This production of sense may differ from person to person.
But perhaps the most damning evidence against determinism lies in the fact that I can choose how to alter my brain states by eating, drinking, doing drugs, going to a concert, etc. So even if my brain states determine my mode of thinking, I can pre-determine my brain states. This may be done to infinitesimal degrees. I can go to a concert and only partly pay attention to the music.
The course of a person’s life is not a matter of a ball traveling down a trajectory. It is a matter of a man walking down a road. He can turn right or left at any time. The laws of physics do not determine my every move they only determine my limitations.