I’m delighted that so many people have felt irresistibly compelled to read, share, and comment on my Atlantic article “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will—But we’re better off believing in it anyway.”
Quite a few of those readers have assumed—understandably, given the article’s title—that I don’t think there is such a thing as free will. But that’s not the case. I report on the idea that free will has been wholly refuted, but I don’t endorse it. I argue that this view is spreading—for example, into courtrooms—and I quote Sam Harris, who defends this view eloquently, and I explore what might happen if this view continues to spread further.
But as I say, it’s not my view. There is, however, one important variety of free will that I do reject: the one that has it as an unearthly power; some kind of mysterious force standing outside of science as we know it, and allowing us to make choices that are not caused by our brains. A significant number of those who commented on the article seem to subscribe to such an idea of free will, including the best-selling author Eben Alexander, who, in a blog post, claims that:
The physical brain does not produce consciousness, so much as serve as a filter that allows primordial consciousness to trickle into our awareness in a very limited fashion, which is the “here-and-now” that we experience in normal waking reality.
As I have argued elsewhere, I think this view is wrong: There is a great deal of evidence that consciousness—and therefore all our decision-making processes—stem entirely from the brain. I’d therefore be happy to say that there is no such thing as that kind of free will, the kind that posits such fancies as free-floating minds or primordial consciousness-transmitters.
On a different note, Alexander and some other commentators point out that quantum mechanics demonstrates that the world is not straightforwardly deterministic. In this, they are right: quantum indeterminacy implies that physical reality has an irreducibly probabilistic nature. Other readers have pointed out that even classical physics does not always allow us to accurately predict what will happen: According to chaos theory, any of an incalculably huge number of tiny differences in initial conditions can lead to radically different outcomes. (At least, that’s the excuse weather forecasters use for getting it wrong.) This too is a fair point.