Free will? Maybe. Maybe not.
Hardcore reductionists say that physics explains everything. There's no such thing as free will because the laws of physics don't require free will, and don't allow for free will. Everything is either predetermined or random.
I sort of believe them.
Given that brains are made of matter and all matter obeys the laws of physics, how could there possibly be free will?
But then I consult my own experience. I feel as though sometimes, I make decisions. Don't I? Given that experience, how can there not be free will?
But then I consult some other experience: the feeling that the conventional sense of self, that thing that seems to make decisions, is an illusion. Given that experience...what?
Does it matter? If there's no such thing as free will, then, of course, it doesn't matter. I'm writing this because my conditioning has led me to these ideas. You'll read it, and either things will change for you or not, depending on your conditioning.
If free will is possible, it would be good to know the conditions under which it might obtain and expand the circumstances under which free will can appear.
So here's what I believe. Or possibly it's what my conditioning will inevitably propose that I believe.
I believe my body was built by machinery that I did not create that runs under the control of a DNA program that I didn't write. When the program started running, cells divided and divided and differentiated, producing a body. I didn't do any of that. At some point, my brain appeared and allegedly started to function. I had nothing to do with that.
After the body was born, my sense organs (which I didn't create) started processing sense data and feeding it to my brain. Human brains are built with some important wired-in programming, like turning a baby's head toward anything that touches its cheek and trying to suck whatever gets in its mouth. Brains are built with wired-in programming that lets the brain reprogram. This helps the body to better satisfy needs that are programmed in from birth.
The reprogramming system lets a child's environment, including its caretakers, guide the reprogramming. As a result, a child's repertoire of responses expands vastly beyond its built-in smiling and wailing. In most cases, it will include talking and understanding speech, manipulating the environment (including said parents).
I got reprogrammed, but I didn't do any reprogramming—no free will required for that.
Hard-wired into normal human brains is the following algorithm: try something different, see what happens, adjust the program. That underlies all learning. I didn't design that algorithm. I didn't apply it. My brain did. And so I learned.
When mom gave one-year-old me a spoonful of something, and I spit it out, what happened? My sense organs might have detected a taste or texture that had, according to previous experience, led to an unpleasant result. My conditioning caused me to do carry out an action that, in previous experience, had gotten rid of such unpleasant sensations. It's also possible that my brain was trying to "try something different and see what happens." Either way, I decided nothing. It was all automatic. No free will required.
And so it went. My behavior was automatic, based on prior conditioning. When I learned new things, my "learning" was a conditioned response to success or failure. Success: keep it up. Failure: change. All automatic. No free will.
As I grew older, I started thinking. Did I invent thinking? Did every human who thinks independently develop thinking? I think not. If Julian Jaynes, who wrote "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," is right, ancient people didn't think the way that we think of thinking. Thinking, to rephrase Jaynes, is a fairly modern, socially acquired skill.
I was conditioned to think.
And I was conditioned to think that I was thinking.
As a child, I was well-conditioned: I did simple, kid things. As I grow up, the conditioned behaviors become more complex.
"Why did you do that?" I was asked from time to time. When an adult asks a kid that question, the kid will be rewarded--or not-- based on the adult's (conditioned) evaluation of the child's answer. That interplay conditions the child to give "good answers," whether or not they are true.
"You've got a decision to make," my Mom would say. She'd spell out the options. "Either stop acting up, or suffer the consequences!" Did I make a decision? Reward and punishment conditioned me to not make the "This will piss mom off decision." The algorithm is deeply ingrained. It takes no free will to do what you've been trained to do.
Eventually, choices become far more complex, require more thinking, have greater consequences. So when does something other than a simple algorithm make these decisions? When does free will appear?
I don't know. But I have some ideas about when free will _can't_ be present.
If I'm "awake" (see this post for an explanation), I might decide. Possibly. If I'm "awake," I might be able to cause a change in my conditioned behavior. Possibly.
If I'm not awake, not aware of my own existence, I think that whatever is acting, reacting, and deciding can't be me. It's got to be my conditioning.
This post was mainly written by MikeSim v 73.0, a simulated human being. Didn't it do an awesome job? I was awake for substantial parts of the writing, so it's entirely possible that I helped.