Free will is always a sticky wicket. On the one hand, we make decisions every day that point to our having a say in what we do. Accountability, in general, relies on this notion. On the other hand, whatever our will is, it is clearly constrained: we can’t will away gravity.
Free will is a hot topic in neuroscience these days, especially with experiments leveraging new fMRI imaging techniques in which we can “watch” the brain do its thing. One of those the neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, interviewed briefly in Scientific American to “explain the new science behind an ancient philosophical question.” Though he wants to claim “the demise of free-will,” he does seem less carelessly strident than some, characterizing the study of free-will as the study of “the nature of action.”
Philosophers, of course, continue to be in on this conversation. Recently in NYTimes’ The Stone, Eddy Nahmias asks, “Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?” The article does a nice job of pointing out common oversimplifications of the problem of free-will, particularly as a dichotomy with determinism.
Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.
Not too surprisingly, the way out of this all-or-nothing style free-will/determinism discussion relies on being in the messy middle where we have constraints that don’t determine. (Emergence anyone?)