Recently, I emailed AETV to give some of my ideas on free will, since they have debated that idea and touched on it there and on the Non Prophets show, but they are understandably overworked and so didn't give any comments on it, although Matt sent a polite email back explaining their lack of time. I thank him for that. This does seem to be a better place for such musings, so I'm posting my thoughts here. All comments are welcome.
My thesis, if this were worthy of that level of formality, would be that free will, as it is traditionally viewed, doesn't exist. For all our science tells us, we live in a universe in which we are ruled by undeniable laws, those being described by the Standard Model. Because of that, I argue that there is no individual freedom and that will itself is really a misnomer. For clarity, I'll divide this into three parts; consciousness, decisions, and will. Also, for the sake of clarity, I'll assume that (our corner of) the universe is hard deterministic, in other words, 'fuzzy' quantum effects act at such low distance scales and high energy levels that they may as well not exist in our everyday experience.
1. Consciousness. Actually, I should backtrack to first describe our bodies as actors. If, as I have assumed, we live in a fully determined world, our bodies are never separate from the influence of the rest of the universe: what we consider as our independence is the first, and most basic, misunderstanding that our brains have made in forming models of our existence (to keep it simple, from here I refer to our "body" rather than bodies). For instance, we may walk upon a beach and see a shell, thinking that we can stop to pick it up or not. What we are not considering, however, is that in that thought we are assuming from prior beliefs that we are separate entities from the beach and that shell. We are not. From the viewpoint of an (hypothetical) objective observer 'outside' the universe, we would be but a complex subset of atoms moving through the space we label as "beach". To him, we would be just as much a part of the beach as the shell or the sand (or the air and water), even though we do not stay there as long as the shell. The same sunlight baths us and affects the atoms in our body the same way as it does the shell. In fact, though it sounds perverse, we might swallow the shell, so that from our perspective it would become a temporary part of our body, or we might drown and wash up next to the shell to become a slightly more permanent part of the beach. My point is that we are independent machines from our perspective, but from an outside viewpoint we are only a small part of a much larger machine.
Because of this, all the processes occurring within our body are but subsets of the larger universal 'process' that began with the Big Bang, including every muscle contraction and every neuron firing. Put more simply, our 'self' is also a model created by our mind. We only have a sense of self because our senses and memories of our body and its effects upon our environment are concentrated in our brain. Whenever we think, "I", we are merely recalling memories of of our body or symbolic models of its behavior that we have built. Recent studies have shown that we in fact enact what we think of as decisions before we realize that we are making them. This means that our self awareness is always a reaction in the memory and cognitive centers to activity our brains have done unconsciously in other areas. Pain, for instance, is first felt by the nerves where the problem occurs, then processed in the pain center, then sent forward to our cognitive centers as the symbol, "My right index finger is touching a hot skillet." It is all a deterministic process; nowhere is there an observer separate from the skillet, our finger, or our brain that 'feels' the pain.
The same can be said for the shell on the beach. As soon as we become aware of it, our body and the shell become just as causally connected as our brain to our finger or our eyes to the sun (indeed, we have never really been separate in a causal sense). Our consciousness, in the guise of our sensory perceptions, reaches out and encompasses the shell. It becomes, as well as the whole of our observable environment, just a farther outward part of the symbolic construction we think of as our self. To turn the view around to that of the imaginary observer outside, our sense of self already encompasses all of the past and future light cones of the universe within its model; we only consider our body as self because that is the part that endures the longest in our perceptions and so is symbolized as "separate" from the rest by our mind.
Taken like this, our consciousness becomes nothing more than the memory-play within the cognitive centers of our brain, a seemingly constant flow of symbols of self, action, and complex concepts built from prior experience. Our outside observer would see no set boundary between that and the rest of our body, our actions, or the world apart from our body. To him; understanding that all electromagnetic, gravitational, and nuclear forces are functionally equivalent; it would look no more singular a phenomenon than the waves washing over the shell or the flame heating the skillet. I might say that consciousness is an illusion, but what is the actual illusion is the self; consciousness is merely the process our brain goes through with the self as a convenient model for use in evaluating changes within our body and interacting with other parts of the larger system. Matt, I think, spoke of consciousness arising as an emergent property of the brain, but the self (which is really what is called for here) is not only not any kind of emergent property, it is only a collection of concepts of particular parts of our self. There is no 'there' there; consciousness is a stream of thoughts, and some (but by no means all) of those thoughts are concerned with our body and the acts that it takes. In fact, I would argue that for a large percentage of our conscious life, we are not even concerned with thoughts about our body at all. Our breathing, sense of touch, and hearing and seeing, are done mostly by automatic processes unconsciously, freeing our minds to process things in the larger world and complex concepts we entertain ourselves with.
2. Decision. Like consciousness (and all other activity in the universe), decision making is a deterministic process. We must be careful in limiting the definition of the word this way, because any appeal to indeterminacy would automatically open the possibility of an actor outside of our brains, which are wholly determined machines. It is said that with quantum mechanics comes the many-worlds view that gives for every particle an indeterminate future, but in practice even given this all such 'fuzziness' evens out far below the threshold of atomic activity and molecular motion. By analogy, the oil in a skillet may be boiling, yet the skillet itself isn't moved by it above the level of heat motion. In the same way, the electrons surrounding a molecule of oxygen jet around basically chaotically, but remain in their electronic shells and their combined movement can be treated as a well-shaped cloud. Likewise, photons of light hitting those electrons make them jump between shells just as chaotically, but their combined effect gives the molecule as a whole optical properties that are indistinguishable from a container filled with trillions of such molecules. Now that I've put QM to sleep, if not you, let me show you how this does away with the common definition of a decision.
Since our brains, and by need, all of our thoughts, are determined by natural laws, so are all the processes which those thoughts go through. Decision making is nothing more than one of these processes. When we come upon a situation where such a decision is to be made, like deciding whether to pick up the shell on the beach (and remembering that we aren't really entering a new situation at all but merely moving through a continuous world where "situations" are only convenient labels we give to parts that seem separate from each other), we do not come to it ex nihilo. We bring not only all the perceptive tools necessary to understand the mechanics of the situation, but also the criteria that we have accumulated throughout our life to make decisions with. When we see the shell, we know it as a shell, but also already have within us preset standards of beauty, utility, and value as well as longstanding desires that we immediately (even before we realize that we are doing it) begin to evaluate it with. Whether we reach out for the shell or not can be called a decision only because this process of evaluation takes place, not because there are two possible outcomes. There is no time from the moment we see the shell until we take it or pass it that the deterministic processing within our brain is suspended, therefore there is only one possible outcome. Seeing the situation from before or after, there was no point at which what is commonly thought of as a "choice" was actually made! It would be the responsibility of someone assuming an indeterminate outcome to show exactly when one occurred and how it can occur within a determined system. There are never two or more possible real outcomes, only two or more imagined outcomes, but creating hypothetical outcomes is merely a part of the still determined decision process. In a QM universe, there may perhaps be infinitely many possible futures where the particles in the shell have different values for their quantum numbers, but, because those differences fall far below the threshold of molecular size, and even out, all of those futures have the shell as a whole occupying only one outcome of the decision to pick it up.
Seeing it this way, a decision is not a choice in the traditional sense, but rather an elongated, partially conscious, and fully determined reaction to the sensory perception of the shell. We can think of it as the evolutionary descendant of a reflex; more complex by far than its first ancestor as are we from single-celled organisms, but not qualitatively different. When confronted with a hot skillet, unless we have consciously trained our body to ignore the sudden pain, we jerk our hand away. In the same way, when we see a shell we consider pretty, small enough to put in our pocket, and interesting enough to keep, we pick it up. The process is essentially the same, only made more complex by the value judgments and desires for things like it that we developed through countless generations. I think that all conscious decisions can be seen this way.
3. Will. Just by using the word, we place some sense of distance between our self, usually meaning our body, and all other objects in the universe. I hope that I have shown that this distance, this division, doesn't really exist. Nevertheless, we act as though we are at least partially independent of other objects. If we are a subset of the whole, we do seem to be a somehow special kind of subset. This is not true either, if we are to accept that all parts of the universe obey the same laws. Certainly, our body changes over time and is never for a moment physically separated from the rest. How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction? By creating the symbolic model of the self to explain (if usually to our self and unconsciously) how we can seem to be an independent actor while, say, our seashell isn't. The same thing applies to the will. It is a model, closely connected to our idea of self, used to explain our behavior. Just like our consciousness, moreover, our behavior is fully determined by our environment and our previous experience. There is no qualitative difference between our body and the shell, only one of complexity. Just as the shell, if left on the beach, would slowly be eroded by the sand and surf, so the processes of our body, including our mind, follow an inexorable path into the future. Our will, therefore, is no more free to act in the traditional sense than the shell is.
What thought, each a cascade of neural activity, is not fully determined by those that came before it and the sensory perceptions flowing in from outside? Which process, therefore, using those thoughts, can also not be fully determined? I have said as much for decision making. Besides choices, what about a will is supposed to be free? The body is determined by natural law. Thoughts are only physical activity within the body. Decisions are only a special ordering of thoughts. Intention is only the imagined planning of actions based upon predetermined desires and decisions. The will itself is only a collection of concepts like decision making, desire, and intention. None of these things is free from deterministic causation, therefore the will cannot be free. Otherwise, what exactly could it be said to be free of?