Sam Harris, a champion of secular, rational thinking and chairman of Project Reason, has a new little book (at only 66 pages, more a pamphlet) called Free Will. The treatise is brief, I suppose, because he thinks this major philosophical issue can easily be dismissed. Free will, as the blurb on the booklet states, is "an inherently flawed and incoherent concept."
So much for the limits of reason, which tells some thinkers that, since our behavior is determined by outside causes, free will is an illusion. It does not exist.
I have always believed and taught the opposite, using as support the philosophy of Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, Hume, Camus, and the modern existentialists. Freedom of choice is basic to morality. Of course, believing is not the same as reasoning, as Harris would be quick to point out. But I like to think we have an emotional intelligence.
The reality of feelings in making philosophical judgments is nothing new. In a recent New York Times article, Gordon Marino traces the prevalence of anxiety in the work of Kierkegaard and makes an important statement: "Many philosophers treat emotions as though they were merely an impediment to reason, but for Kierkegaard there is a cognitive component to angst. It is in our anxiety that we come to understand feelingly that we are free, that the possibilities are endless."
As I understand this, the feeling of fear is a legitimate part of our known response to reality, and it tells us we are free, even though we have no control over our genetic inheritance and very limited control over the environment in which we are raised. We are conscious of the present and can make the necessary choices to continue to live as well as to do or refuse numerous things.
What does the fascinating world of neuoscience tell us about free will? As Alfred Mele, the recent recipient of a major grant to do a scientific study of free will, says, everything depends on how you define "free will." Does it mean we have not only a body with a brain but a non-physical part of ourselves called the soul or mind? In answering affirmatively to such a question, it seems to me that we have to rely on more than reason.
Michael Gassaniga, a neuroscientist, apparently believes that free will involves a spiritual (non-material) element: "some secret stuff that is you." Mele and many others may disagree with this, and the scientific question remains an open one: does the brain work in such a way that choice is facilitated? (Unknown) Do we need a non-material essence to exercise our will? (Probably not) Are we capable of having thoughts and making choices independent of any physical process? (Apprently not).
So there is no free will if you are a neuroscientist who is limited to studying the brain without considering other realities. But, as one who needs to read much more on this topic, who knows much less than it seems I do, I would say that the will is related to the soul or true self, and that the self, which is comprised of feelings and thoughts--has its own reality, independent of the body.
And I doubt if science can ever silence all the thinkers of the past who would agree with the witticism once made by I. B. Singer: "You have to believe in free will; you have no choice." Why? Because the reality of the self, not to mention the complexity of decision-making, is infinitely more mysterious than a single, rational, scientific answer--especially one reduced to 66 pages, plus notes--can hope to provide. We need to understand feelingly.