Do or don't: Why neuroscience hasn’t settled the question of free will (and a hint at a different answer)
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In recent years, scientists and science popularisers alike have seen profound consequences for our view of ourselves and the organisation of society in new findings about the functioning of the human brain. Prominent in the debate surrounding these claims is the question of free will, i.e. whether or not humans are able to choose and act freely in a certain fundamental sense thought required for our practice of holding ourselves free and responsible for our actions, both morally and legally. One common position, as taken by, e.g. Sam Harris (populariser) and Daniel Wegner (scientist), holds that free will of this kind is unsupportable in the face of empirical evidence – i.a. evidence from neuroscience about the way consciousness lags behind unconscious neural processes – and that we therefore need to revise our views and practices in light of these scientific facts. In this thesis, I argue that what might be termed the "revisionist" position is predicated not only on empirical evidence, but is essentially motivated by a belief in the fundamental incompatibility of free will with any reasonable (meta-) physics. In Part 1 I investigate the fundamental philosophical debate and find that the question of the possibility of free will is unresolved, thus challenging any simple appeal to the impossibility of free will such as that made by Harris in his short book on the subject, Free Will (2012). I also provide independent reason for upholding a broadly commonsense belief in free will by highlighting the sceptical nature of the challenge from determinism, which can be overcome with the help of P.F. Strawson’s "soft naturalism"-appeal to our self-justified reactive attitudes. In Part 2 I investigate the empirical evidence adduced as support for the revisionist position, focused through the well-developed argument presented by Wegner in his Illusion of Conscious Will (2002). Here I argue that the revisionist interpretation of the data loses out to a traditional interpretation that is realist about conscious causal efficacy when the former is divested of its untenable appeal to incompatibilism. I conclude that neuroscience has not settled the question of free will, and, furthermore, that the current state of the two debates – the theoretical and the empirical – supports a continued belief in free will of a kind that fits with our practice of generally believing ourselves free in our choices, and responsible for our actions.