Neither free nor completely determined
Free will is a hackneyed topic. Science seems to be telling us that free will doesn’t exist because behavior is governed by the brain and the brain operates on physical rules of cause and effect. There is no such thing as uncaused cause, which free will requires. For some people this is an unbearable notion; these folks hang on to their perceived volition as evidence that they are in fact free to do as they choose, without being constrained by their biology. Others swallow what science has espoused long ago; of these folks, some tend to be pessimistic, thinking that their lack of free will means that everything is pointless and that the best thing they can do for themselves is to blur the line between their behind and a comfortable couch, until scientists discover the new species Homo sofus.
Still others take the absence of free will and choose to not cry over spilled milk. These people don’t allow determinism to lower their outlook on life. Rightly so.
If we grant that we live in a deterministic universe, where the rules of physics dictate that everything has a cause, then free will – defined as the ability to act without prior constraints – is obsolete. But what does determinism actually mean? Just what is the nature of neural processes that act in decision-making? If the brain works by physical rules, shouldn’t we be able to predict with 100% accuracy what effect a certain neural signal will have on subsequent signals?
This is noteworthy because neurotransmission seems to defy these concrete deterministic rules. The probability of neurotransmitter release, for example, is stochastic in nature; given a certain stimulation, it is impossible to predict whether a neuron will release neurotransmitter or not. Only after many experimental stimulations is it possible to find the probability of transmitter release.
The brain makes up for this unreliability with redundant connections, but the question remains whether the concept of stochastic processes may be scaled up to the level of decision-making in the brain. Also, it is not clear if the unpredictability is due to truly random outcomes or some hidden variables that current scientific techniques cannot measure.
This means that not only is the will not free, but that it may also be determined by random events (possibly at the quantum level). One’s actions then are based on genetic makeup, environment and perhaps randomness. I’m afraid this will feed the pessimists’ appetites, but that’s inevitable with every scientific explanation of human nature.