It was easy to suppose that people have free will when little was known about how brain processes produce decisions. But traditional ideas about free will are becoming increasingly implausible. Nevertheless, autonomy can remain an important ideal, even if free will is an illusion.
The Amygdaloids is a New York rock band whose members are neuroscientists. On their web site, amygdaloids.com, you can find their songs about the mind and brain, including a catchy one called "How Free is Your Will." Its lyrics ask questions like "Do you have control?" and "Who's running your soul?". As neuroscientists, they should have ample reason to be skeptical about many traditional ideas concerning free will.
John-Dylan Haynes and other researchers have found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 seconds before it enters awareness. Brain scans can show whether someone is choosing to add two numbers together or subtract them. The neural mechanisms underlying human decision making are increasingly being understood through a combination of experimental work involving brain imaging and theoretical work with computational models of brain processes.
These results have major implications for the classic philosophical problem of free will, supporting the determinist position that free will is just an illusion that derives from lack of knowledge about the neural processes that produce decisions. Of course it goes against common intuitions to think that your choice to eat an apple rather than a chocolate derives from the interactions of billions of tiny neurons. But many intuitions have been overthrown by scientific advances, leading to conclusions such as that the sun's heat is the result of fusion of countless hydrogen atoms, and that influenza is the result of infection by myriad flu viruses. Similarly, we should be prepared to accept the counterintuitive conclusion that our apparently free choices are the causal results of brain processes. I argued in my book The Brain and the Meaning of Life that you don't tell your brain what to do, and your brain doesn't tell you what to do: you are your brain deciding what to do in your physical and social environment. The devil didn't make you do it either.
Many people find the abandonment of free will very disturbing, and it certainly is a major challenge to traditional notions about the mind as an immortal soul that is only influenced but not determined by physical processes. But there is no good evidence for the existence of non-material souls, so people need to learn to live with the increasingly probable hypothesis that whatever you do results from neurochemical processes in your brain. Do we therefore need to toss out notions such as morality, responsibility, and autonomy along with wishful thinking about immortality?
Not at all. Consider first autonomy, which can be rethought in a way that does not require the complete freedom from physical processes that the traditional soul-based idea requires. Your actions are autonomous if they result from normal brain processes that help to satisfy your needs. Actions are NOT autonomous if the brain processes that produce them are malfunctions arising from disorders such as schizophrenia, or products of external coercion by other people. Disease and coercion can lead people to do things that violate their vital needs such as health and social relationships.
When people act autonomously, it is reasonable to hold them responsible for their actions, because doing so can increase desirable social behaviors and decrease undesirable ones. The point of responsibility is then based on social concerns, not on religious ideas about sin and blame. The ethical view that the rightness or wrongness of actions depends on their consequences does not require the traditional, absolute notion of free will, only the science-compatible idea of autonomy as normal brain functioning. The importance of self-control can survive, as long as the self is understood as a system of mechanisms rather than as a transcendental entity. Hence recognition that free will as usually conceived is an illusion is not nearly as distressing as it first seems. Enjoy your autonomy.