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Free Will and Compatibilism

6. Intuition of Free Will

Book cover: Free Will by Sam Harris

Some libertarians make much of our intuition that when we act freely, we feel as if we act unrestrained by antecedent physical causes; that we act contra-causally. Campbell [1967: 41], for example, urges us that:

human beings so obstinately persist in believing that there is an indissoluble core of purely self-originated activity which even heredity and environment are powerless to affect . . . because they feel certain of the existence of such activity from their immediate practical experience of themselves

Hard determinists, in contrast, call into question this feeling, labelling it as just an 'illusion' of free will. I think both positions are mistaken. Think about a paradigmatic free act, such as choosing coffee over tea at your friend's house (assuming you enjoy both kinds of beverage). Sure, you don't feel any kind of physical impulse forcing your finger to point to the coffee. You would be the first to know if there were such a force acting on your finger. Furthermore, you don't feel any kind of impulse forcing neurons in your brain to adopt particular action potentials. It's the feeling of absence of such a force that the libertarian cashes out as the feeling of having free will.

But notice the queerness of the latter kind of feeling. Feelings of your finger being forced are natural and we all know what that feels like. However, what would it feel like to have particular neurons in your brain forced into particular states—states that go on to generate forces that determine the states of the motor neurons that ultimately trigger your finger pointing? There are currently billions of neurons in your brain that at this very moment have their states determined by the action potentials of other neurons. And yet you have no feeling of these neurons being forced. If you cannot know the feeling of neurons in your brain being forced into particular states, how can you or anyone else possibly know what it feels like to have some neuronal states underdetermined by other neuronal states? The feeling of free will that we have must be something other than the feeling that some of our brain states are underdetermined by physical forces.

What we can conclude from this introspective psychological reflection about which kinds of states we can have a feeling about and which we can't is that the hard determinists give away too much to the libertarians. The 'illusion' of contra-causal free will that the determinists refer to is an illusion itself. It is a chimera that only serves to confuse the debate. We, in fact, do not have an 'illusion' of contra-causal free will because it's not the kind of thing that we can have an illusion about.

If our feeling of free will is not a feeling of contra-causal willing, then what is it? The answer, I suggest, is the 'feeling' of the absence of compulsion. The feeling of free will, then, is not so much a positive feeling. It is the absence of a feeling. Just as being 'pain-free' is not a feeling. Being 'pain-free' is simply the absence of the feeling of pain.

Copyright © 2016

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