My approach to the question of free will is a fairly practical one. Naturally, I’m oversimplifying things a bit in the discussion and ignoring many of the nuances, but such is life in the land of blog.
Put as a simple disjunction, I have free will or I do not. Obviously, there can be degrees of free will and various types of free will. But, it is something I possess (in whatever degree or variety) or something I lack.
There seems to be no actual way to discern which of these is true. From an empirical standpoint, a universe with free will looks and feels just like a universe without free will: you just observe people doing stuff and apparently making decisions while thinking and feeling that you are doing the same. Perhaps we really are freely making choices, perhaps not.
Interestingly, people often argue in favor of one side or the other-as if there is some shred of evidence either way that cannot easily be defeated by some clever argument. Hence, this is why I take my practical approach.
Returning to the disjunction, I have no way to determine which is true. Which, then, should I select? Let us consider each option.
Suppose someone rejects free will and they are wrong. In this case they are not only mistaken but also consciously rejecting real freedom. If the person is seriously devoted to this rejection of freedom, this could have a rather negative impact. For example, the person would reject responsibility for her actions and perhaps fall victim to a depressing fatalism. This is clearly not a good option.
Of course, from what I have observed, even people who argue for determinism still act and talk like everyone else when they are not in the thrall of their theory (which is not evidence against their view, but is nonetheless interesting). It would be fascinating to watch a proponent of determinism who consistently lived his theory every moment of the day. Naturally, he would need to make his language match his theory-he could not, for example, say things like “I decided” or “she decided.” Some determinists take the clever way out by saying they are determined to act as if they, in their normal life, think they are free.
Suppose someone rejects free will and they are correct. In that case, they are right-but not in the sense that they made the correct choice. They would have been determined to have that view and it would just so happen that it matches reality.
Suppose someone accepts free will and they are right. In this case, they have the correct view, which is always a plus. They have also made the right choice-since choice would be real, making right and wrong choices is possible. More importantly, if they act consistently with this view, then they will be doing things right-not in the moral sense, but in the sense that they are acting in accord with how the universe works.
Suppose someone accepts free will and they are wrong. In this case they are in error, but have not made an incorrect choice (for obvious reasons). They believe they are freely making choices, but obviously are not.
From this brief discussion, it would seem that the best choice is to chose free will.
If I can choose, then I should obviously choose free will. If I cannot choose, then I will think I chose whatever it is I am determined to believe. If I can choose and choose to think I cannot, I am in error. Since I cannot know which option is correct, it seems best to accept free will. If I am actually free, I am right. If I am not free, then I am mistaken but had no choice.