Sometimes I think that I have free will and sometimes I don’t. For example, I just bought Paul Johnson’s Modern Times on Amazon.uk and I believe I did so of my own free will. I could have chosen a different book if I had wanted to. But I didn’t want to. Why? Because of the kind of person I am, which is determined by the history of my genes’ interaction with the world. My desires and tastes were created by a confluence of forces beyond my control. They made me buy Modern Times!
I now think that both these views are true depending on how you choose to define free will. If free will is simply an ability to reflect on what you want and then choosing it, then I have free will. However, if free means being able to choose all the conditions that give rise to desires, then I don’t have free will.
I don’t think the former version of free will is a matter of degree. Animals, children and retarded people have less free will than normal adults because they aren’t capable of reflecting on their desires. Instead of reflecting on them they are largely controlled by them. Normal adults on the other hand can think things through and choose not to act on a desire (this requires intelligence and restraint). They might decide to give up smoking, or eat less chocolate or not sleep with someone attractive, even though they might want to do all of these things. This vetoing of what you would like to do but don’t is what the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran called ‘Free won’t’.
Anyway, since being able to choose my desires from scratch is as impossible as giving birth to myself, I am happy to forget about that fantasy. Instead I am grateful for the limited ability to choose that I do possess. After all, there is a significant difference between being inside a prison or outside it, between being free to walk around or being tied to a chair, between being able to reflect on my intended actions or being a slave to my emotions, like some animal. Although less than perfect, this kind of free will is worth having and it seems to me that the people who believe that free will is just an illusion are missing something important.