If Free Will Isn't An Illusion

by Patrick Appel

Julian Sanchez points to this fascinating John Searle lecture from a few years ago which contains a partial defense of free will and goes through some of the relevant theory. Searle's argument against determinism, which he admits is imperfect and a view he doesn't necessarily endorse, rests on the idea that consciousness and free will are too expensive evolutionarily to arise in a determinist universe. Sanchez complicates Searle's view:

Consciousness could well be a spandrel.  That is to say, it may just be that when you have a sufficiently complex information processing system made of the particular kind of physical stuff our brains are composed of, the processes involved will have some kind of subjective character. If conscious mental activity just is brain activity, and not some kind of strange excretion from it, however, then they have precisely the same causal properties, and it’s just a confusion to describe it as “epiphenomenal.”...Or to put it another way: The alternative picture is that evolutionary selection pressure might have produced these very strategic zombieslike vastly more complex insects, say, all stimulus-response with nobody home but then some mutation won out that added this further feature, consciousness, to the system, because it yielded some additional improvement.

Arguments like Thomas Metzinger's understanding of the self make it hard for me to defend free will from a scientific perspective. But my inability to fully explain free will through rational thought shrinks somewhat in importance when considering that we all live our lives as if free will exists. Even if I cannot satisfactorily resolve free will intellectually, I take some comfort in the lived embrace of it. Searle poses a good question that highlights the inability to shake off the experience or illusion of free will: "if determinism were shown to be true, would you accept it?"