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Do You Have Free Will?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJanuary 6, 2012 9:27 PM


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I mean you, specifically.


I'm not asking whether people have free will. I think they do - except you. You're the one person on earth who doesn't have it.

If you disagree - how would you convince me that you do have it?

Alternatively, if you're one of the people who doesn't believe in free will - I agree with you, people don't have it... except me. I'm special.


This might seem like one of those thought experiments that only philosophers could care about, but it's of more everyday importance than the general question of 'whether we have free will'. That's an interesting debate, but really it doesn't change anything. If we have it, we always have, and if we don't, we never will. Either way, here we are, and we'd better get on with our lives.

On the other hand, the question of whether an individual has free will has real consequences. It can even be a matter of life or death. It comes up in court cases. Lawyers and psychiatrists don't use the words "free will", they'll talk about responsibility or capacity or sound minds, but what they mean, in essence, is what the rest of us mean by the term free will.

In some of these cases, free will is what you want - if, say, psychiatrists want to confine you to a hospital, and you say you don't want to be there. Other times it's the reverse - if you've committed a crime, and your defense is that some kind of mental or neurological illness made you do it, then you're arguing that you don't have it (or didn't, at the crucial moment.)

But while lots of people have opinions on the abstract "Free Will" question, I don't think many people pay attention to the issue of their own free will or lack of it - until they end up in court. We just assume that if everyone else has it, so do we, and vice versa.

Yet how can we be so sure? Everyone accepts that people differ in regards to how much free will they have. Wwhen people say "I believe people have free will", they don't really mean all people - they surely make an exception for babies, people in a coma, people having a seizure, and probably children, people with dementia, people with severe mental illness... Likewise, people who don't believe in free will recognize that there's a difference between a normal adult and one of those people.

But where do we draw the line, and how do you know which side you're on? This seems to me the most important questions to be asking about free will.

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