The subject of "free will" came up in a discussion in a Psychology
class I once took. Because neither I nor the teacher had defined our terms, the first half of this discussion was worthless; halfway through we realized we were talking about two very different things. To prevent that from happening, let's decide here what we mean by "free will". Under free will
lists a number of definition
s of free will. I propose that these definitions can really be boiled down to two:
In a religious context, the debate is fairly limited to theology and interpretation of Scripture (of whatever religion you may be), as well as personal convictions.
The psychological debate is more interesting. B. F. Skinner, in various works including his most famous Beyond Freedom and Dignity expresses the following ideas: firstly, free will is irrelevant; secondly, because there is no such thing. This is all my teacher explained to me (I haven't actually read the book, I've never seemed to have the time, so if there's an error in the nuances correct me), along with the fact that it caused incredible controversy and understandable consternation when it was published. With these ideas we seeded our discussion, and the following are the conclusions we came to.
There exist two "extreme" (as in, few people really hold these positions, but they make good rhetorical devices) positions in psychology: the humanistic and the deterministic. The humanist follows the Lockean tradition: that we are at birth tabula rasa, clean slates; from this zero point we learn everything. We have free will, meaning that it is absolutely impossible to predict an individual's response to a given stimulus (it must be noted here that "predict" is as opposed to the deterministic point of view. The physics-based arguments one hears are not addressed here, but they do eventually come into play). The determinist, on the other hand, holds that all behavior is completely controlled by either genetics or learning, and that knowing the sum total of an individual's experiences would allow one to predict the individual's behavior.
The middle ground is wide and varied, as any respectable middle ground should be; but, like all respectable middle ground, there are some ideas that tend to be common. Firstly: that we are tabula rasa at birth is mostly true. A somewhat famous saying regarding computer interface design is appropriate here: "The only intuitive interface is the nipple." This more or less sums up the middle-ground position, particularly if you substitute "intuitive interface" with "innate behavior" and "the nipple" with "sucking a nipple (and other, similar behaviors)." Secondly: our experiences do indeed have some hand in determining our behavior. Children who touch a hot stove soon learn not to do so. The extent of the influence experience has in determining our behavior tends to be the diverging point, and you could ask a hundred psychologists the question and receive two hundred answers.
At this point, I wondered, if experience does not determine behavior, what does? Keep in mind that theological considerations are not relevant to this particular discussion. To answer this question, we returned again to Locke. (Aside: it's quite funny; had Locke been given a hint of these ideas, Skinner would have been obsolete two centuries before he was born.) Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, states that "all ideas come from sensation or reflection." Sensation is that which I have called experience (Locke refers to both sensation and reflection as experience): to touch a hot stove is painful. Reflection is that which is built from sensation: to touch a hot stove is painful; to stick my hand in fire is painful; heat causes pain. There are many levels of reflection, and the higher levels to be the defining characteristic of sentience. So sensation and reflection (and our limited innate knowledge) are the only determinants of behavior.
The immediate conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the determinists are wrong, because known the sum total of an individual's experience does not include his reflection. But there is another layer; an onion so large as free will is not so easily unravelled. The correct response is the question: "Does knowing the sum total of an individual's experiences allow one to predict his reflection?" (Aside: we left feasibility behind a long time ago, back when we started with knowing the sum total of an individual's experiences.) Being able to predict an individual's reasoning (reflection) based on his experience would imply that each of us reasons in the same way. A quick look at E2 will disabuse us of this notion fairly rapidly. But it is also true that on a very basic level, most of us would indeed come to the same conclusions from an equal set of stimuli. We all know that fire is painful. And here we understand why we call the higher levels of reasoning the defining characteristic of sentience: because it is at the higher levels that each of us is different from the other, and it is the manner of our reflection on higher stimuli that defines each of us as individuals.
So what, then, does make our reasoning differ and define us as individuals? Well, on one level, lower reasoning. But that leads to circular logic; there has to be some base individuality. The answer is individual brain shape and size; individual connection configurations between neurons; and the like (and here, the physics might start getting relevant). This is the only possible base variable that affects how all the others vary. We have all heard how Einstein's brain was irregularly shaped in the area dealing with mathematics. So, to some extent then, the determinists are right. If we knew the sum total of an individual's experiences, the exact shape of his brain, the location of every neuron and all its connections, and we knew how to put all this data together and decipher it we could conceivably predict an individual's behavior. If we couldn't, and all our knowledge as well as the data was flawless, we might have to start bringing theology or quantum mechanics in (funny how everything we threw out crept back in), because our theory would have been effectively falsified. But in another way, the humanists are right, because gathering all that data about an individual would be next to impossible, and whether or not it is possible to have so much knowledge about the brain that the data would be useful is unknown.
In the end, it turns out Skinner was right, though. Free will in a psychological context does not exist, because it cannot exist, because it is irrelevant. What would we be free from? Reason? That, gentle noder, is known as insanity.