We should begin by talking about what free will is, and what free will is not. Free will is not the same as freedom of action. Freedom of action refers to things that prevent a willed action from being realized. For example, being in prison means you are not free to go out with your friends on Friday night to the local bar. Being in a straight jacket means you are not free to comb your hair. Being paralyzed means not being able to move your limbs. These are not issues of free will. Free will means being free to try to escape (or not), to comb your hair (or not), to try to move your limbs (or not).
Neither is free will the same as political or social freedom or better known as liberty. Just because you will be taking to jail for carrying a concealed weapon, does not mean you are not free to try, or even free to actually do so. For every action there is a reaction. In other words you are free to do just about anything you want, you will just have to face the consequences of your actions
Now on the other side of the argument, we need to point out that determinism is not the same thing as fatalism, destiny, or predestination. Determinism means that the way things are at one moment is the necessary result of the ways things were the moment before. Determinism means that every effect has a cause, and that nothing, not even the will, is exempt. Determinism does not mean that the future has already been established for us.
We should define free will. As I understand it, it is a matter of intent: The mental and emotional processes that we engage in when confronted by a choice result in intent to engage in certain actions or non-actions. I have before me a chocolate éclair and a blueberry muffin. I look, I sniff, I consider past experiences, I feel good about both prospects, and then I decide. I intend to eat the chocolate éclair (or the muffin, or neither, or both, or part of one and the other…). Whether I am free to actually eat it, or whether I can expect severe punishment for doing so, is irrelevant. I have made up my mind!
The determinist would respond with the same argument he made with imagination and creativity: Your perceptions and cognitions and emotions, your past experiences, inevitably lead to your projecting that goal and working toward it. It only appears to you to be free of necessity. Please note though how quickly we give up our goals when other, more powerfully supported forces push in upon us and make us feel as though there way is “the right way.”
The argument of free will versus determinism is in some measure a false one. Both sides have been reduced to straw men or easily destroyed arguments, by oversimplification. For example, free will has never meant freedom to ignore the laws of nature, and determinism does not mean everything is predictable. There has to be a different answer. As a middle-aged man, I have dozens of years of experiences: my childhood, the books I’ve read, conversations with my friends, my own thoughts ,all of that has made me who I am today. All this is on top of my unique genetics and other physical realities of who I am. The things that happen to me now are experienced though “me”, through this mass that I am, and my responses depend, not only on my present situation, but on all that I am. This may not be “free will” in the absolute sense, but it is certainly self-determination.
If we possess a somewhat limited freedom, we also possess a somewhat limited responsibility for our actions. For most adults, it can be legitimately claimed that who we are includes basic moral concepts and a rational respect for the law conveyed to us by our parents and others. These things are a part of who we are, and are available to us when we make a choice to behave one way or another. We are therefore culpable if we disregard these moral and legal concepts. This flows nicely into the legal tradition that asks whether or not a person actually “knows” right from wrong, and whether the person has the maturity or the cognitive ability to “choose” right over wrong.
In other words, we don’t have to be “above” the natural world in order to have a degree of freedom within that world. As the band Rush would say:
You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will.