Tis the season to ask the title question, as it was rhetorically asked by Shaun Nichols, an academic “experimental” philosopher at the University of Arizona. Nichols has sympathy with those who say that “free will is a figment of our imagination. No one has it or ever will. Rather our choices are either determined—necessary outcomes of the events that have happened in the past—or they are Ârandom.”
I claim—Nichols would say I have no choice but to claim—that this view is asinine and those who hold it are at a minimum mentally addled. Let’s see what evidence there is either way (but if Nichols is right, your being convinced one way or the other is rigidly determined or random, so do not despair whatever view you come to; but if you do despair you were meant to).
Nichols says, “Typically philosophers deal with [philosophical] issues through careful thought and discourse with other theorists.” He eschews this approach and choses to instead “administer surveys, measure reaction times and image brains to understand the sources of our instincts.” We used to call that sort of thing science, not philosophy, but never mind.
Here is an anecdote that convinced Nichols that free will is a folksy illusion:
[Scientists] widely agree that unconscious processes exert a powerful influence over our choices. In one study, for example, participants solved word puzzles in which the words were either associated with rudeness or politeness. Those exposed to rudeness words were much more likely to interrupt the experimenter in a subsequent part of the task. When debriefed, none of the subjects showed any awareness that the word puzzles had affected their behavior. That scenario is just one of many in which our decisions are directed by forces lurking beneath our awareness.
Thus, ironically, because our subconscious is so powerful in other ways, we cannot truly trust it when considering our notion of free will. We still do not know conclusively that our choices are determined. Our intuition, however, provides no good reason to think that they are not. If our instinct cannot support the idea of free will, then we lose our main rationale for resisting the claim that free will is an illusion.
Before interpretation, let’s hear from an authority more eminent than Nichols:
“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.
“I don’t,” said Scrooge.
“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your own senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”…
“You see this toothpick?” said Scrooge, returning quickly to the charge, for the reason just assigned; and wishing, though it were only for a second, to divert the vision’s stony gaze from himself.
“I do,” replied the Ghost.
“You are not looking at it,” said Scrooge.
“But I see it,” said the Ghost, “notwithstanding.”
“Well!” returned Scrooge, “I have but to swallow this, and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you; humbug!”
At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror when the phantom, taking off the bandage round his head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!
Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.
“Mercy!” he said. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”
“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”
“I do,” said Scrooge. “I must…”
In other words, if you emerge from a Comedy Club at 10pm you’re likely to be happier than your conspecifics who stayed at home watching PBS. Or if you ride the 7 train after a Mets game your language will be coarser than if you called 777-7777 and were driven home listening to Mozart waft from the speakers. Or if you have dinner you’re more likely to feel full than your fasting brother. Similarly, if you emerge from your repast with ptomaine poisoning your outlook on life will be darker than your sibling who heated his beef to the proper temperature.
Of course the environment affects our moods! Whoever claimed that it did not? But because it sometimes does, it does not imply it always does or always does so to the same degree. (This is a non-experimental philosophical argument.)
In short, Scrooge had it right.