What most of us understand by free will is an ability to freely choose between a number of options. We walk into a shop to buy a newspaper, but some chocolate bars catch our eye. Should we buy one or not? The believers in free will would say that we have a free choice, but even a superficial investigation would suggest that this is not the case. If we have just read a book on the evils of sugar, we will be less inclined to buy. If we have just had a devastating argument with our partner and need emotional comfort, then we may just buy the chocolate. The point that is being made here is that our actions have causes. We are no different from the natural world, of which we are clearly a part. If I throw a heavy stone at a window I would expect the window to break. The window has no choice in the matter. If someone happens to say you are the ugliest person they have ever met, you will feel offended – guaranteed. Unless of course you are a particularly exceptional person – which most of us are not.
The main problem for us is that we are only conscious of actions, and not the causes of actions. Typically we do not reflect and ask why we carried out a particular action – in other words what the causes were. Much work has been done to study so called free will. In one experiment a man was asked simply to raise a hand. He was given a choice. It could be the right hand or the left hand. Electrodes placed on the scalp showed that the decision was actually made before the man became aware of it. Of course the man believed that he had freely chosen, but the electrode readings showed that a hand was chosen before the action. There was no free will.
At a more mundane level you cannot say what you will be thinking in 10 seconds from now. Anything might happen to distract your thought. You may, with firm resolution, decide that you will be thinking of elephants, but when your partner walks into the room and makes some disapproving comment the elephants will fly out of the window. It’s the same with emotions and even the state of your body.
The implications of this are profound. It means there is no such thing as praise and blame, since we act out of necessity, in the same way a billiard ball moves in a certain way when it is hit. So a thief stole because he or she was simply responding to various causes – no doubt complex, but causes all the same. The charity worker, does what they do, because of causes, and so there is no praise. The is very similar to the Buddhist assertion of ‘no blame’. It doesn’t mean we let the thief off, just because he or she was acting necessarily. Such a person is a danger to society and must be dealt with accordingly.
The person who can see all things as necessary, and not the acts of free will, achieves a certain liberation. We wouldn’t be angry with the wind for blowing a tree over, and neither should we be angry with a driver who cuts in front of us – but usually we are, simply because we tend to think of people acting from free will.
Spinoza has a great deal to say about this in his master work, The Ethics:
The mind has greater power over the emotions and is less subject thereto, in so far as it understands all things as necessary.