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From Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson
(Alfred A. Knopf)

The hidden preparation of mental activity gives the illusion of free will. We make decisions for reasons we often sense only vaguely, and seldom if ever understand fully. Ignorance of this kind is conceived by the conscious mind as uncertainty to be resolved; hence freedom of choice is ensured. An omniscient mind with total commitment to pure reason and fixed goals would lack free will. Even the gods, who grant that freedom to men and show anger when they choose foolishly, avoid assuming such nightmarish power.

Free will as a side product of illusion would seem to be free will enough to drive human progress and offer happiness. Shall we leave it at that? No, we cannot. The philosophers won't let us. They will say: Suppose that with the aid of science we knew all the hidden processes in detail. Would it then be correct to claim that the mind of a particular individual is predictable, and therefore truly, fundamentally determined and lacking in free will? We must concede that much in principle, but only in the following, very peculiar sense. If within the interval of a microsecond the active networks composing the thought were known down to every neuron, molecule, and ion, their exact state in the next microsecond might be predicted. But to pursue this line of reasoning into the ordinary realm of conscious thought is futile in pragmatic terms, for this reason: if the operations of a brain are to be seized and mastered, they must also be altered. In addition, the principles of mathematical chaos hold. The body and brain comprise noisy legions of cells, shifting microscopically in discordant patterns that unaided consciousness cannot even begin to imagine. The cells are bombarded every instant by outside stimuli unknowable by human intelligence in advance. Any one of the events can entrain a cascade of microscopic episodes leading to neural patterns. The computer needed to track the consequences would have to be of stupendous proportions, with operations conceivably far more complex than those of the thinking brain itself. Furthermore, scenarios of the mind are all but infinite in detail, their content evolving in accordance with the unique history and physiology of the individual. How are we to feed that into a computer?
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So there can be no determinism of human thought, at least not in obedience to causation in the simple way physical laws describe the motion of bodies and the atomic assembly of molecules. Because the individual mind cannot be fully known and predicted, the self can go on passionately believing in its own free will. And that is a fortunate circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the mind, imprisoned by fatalism, would slow and deteriorate. Thus in organismic time and space, in every operational sense that applies to the knowable self, the mind does have free will.


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    Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, USA. From Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson. Copyright © 1998 by Edward O. Wilson. All rights reserved.
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