Do we have free will? Not many questions can excite people more than this one, and for good reasons. Our ideas about our own freedom influence some of the most important things in our lives, from our political decisions and legal practices to our personal motivations, choices and actions.
The goal of this short book is to solve the problem of free will once and for all. This goal is not pursued by reciting the history of the problem of free will, nor by referring to the contemporary debate over it. Instead, it is pursued by approaching the problem directly and analytically – by clearly defining free will and other kinds of human freedom. This lays the foundation for a clear discussion that arrives at final and unambiguous conclusions about human freedom.
From the book's conclusion:
Can we make choices?
Yes, we both can and do make choices. We can consider different possible actions and pick one among them, and this process is a complex physical process that takes place in our brain. It is true that we are caused to make the choices we make by prior causes beyond our own control, but this does not mean that we do not make choices, nor that we have no good reason to make good choices, which we do, since our choices indeed do have an influence in the world.
Can we be said to be free in any way if our actions are caused by prior causes beyond our own control?
Yes. We can be said to be free in the sense that we, at least to some degree, can act freely, as in unconstrained within a certain range of possible actions, according to our own intentions. This is the freedom we by definition want to have, and it is a freedom that we can increase, since the range of actions we can perform can be expanded. Furthermore, we can also be said to have a certain freedom of intention, as our intentions are not narrowly constrained by our genes. We are uniquely free in these ways, not because we are non-mechanistic and uncaused, but because of our mechanistic nature and the way we cause actions to happen.
Is there just one possible, predetermined outcome of the universe?
We do not know whether there is just one or infinitely many possible outcomes from the present state of the universe, and, as made clear in the second chapter, we can never know. All we can say is that the state of the universe at least to some degree is caused to be the way it is by its prior states.
Could we have acted differently than we did in a given situation?
We can never know whether we could have acted differently in any given situation, but if we had acted differently, it would still be due to causes that were ultimately beyond our own control. This does not imply that we have no reason to try our best to create a better world, however. We have every reason to do so, and no reason not to.
Can we meaningfully reward and punish people for their actions?
Yes. Rewarding and punishing are practices that have an impact on the way we act, and it therefore makes sense to reward and punish people. Punishment, reward and any other kind of motivation is therefore not undermined by the knowledge that we are caused to act by ultimately unchosen causes, but in fact rather the opposite, since a better understanding of how we are caused to act will enable us to improve our practice of punishment and reward.
Can there be any morality if we do not perceive ourselves and other people as unmoved movers?
Yes. We need not delude ourselves about what we are, nor about the causal origins of our actions, in order to create a better world. Quite the contrary.