Are you responsible for your actions? Are you an agent capable of observing, evaluating, analysing and acting? Do you have the freedom to make decisions for yourself? Do you have free will? It has been suggested by some that free will is an illusion.

Jerry A. Coyne puts it like this:

“I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.”

We are obviously in immediate trouble. Putting aside the effects of quantum mechanics we know that the universe is a deterministic system. Obviously at the lowest level reality is simply the operation of thoughtless elementary particles interacting according to the same laws of physics as keeps the planets in regular motion. It should therefore be self evident that this definition fails to capture what most people instinctively believe; that people are free agents with free will.

So what is ‘free will’? Can a rock exhibit free will? Or a butterfly? Or a cat? Or a human? Imagine sand on a beach. The motion of the sand, with larger grains being separated from smaller by the action of the waves on the beach create order. Can the sand exhibit free choice? Clearly the action of momentum and the basic physical laws are insufficient. There needs to be an agent involved.

What do I mean by an agent? I will for the moment define an agent as a system capable of independent observation, evaluation and action. But let us consider a simple creature such as a butterfly. It may have a brain, but the configuration of that brain is almost entirely determined by its genetics. When you compare one butterfly to another one might imagine their behaviour will be close to deterministic. You could through observation of the butterfly determine what it will do given a set of inputs. It has no memory, it is a automaton. The butterfly is therefore incapable of genuine independent action; its ‘choices’ are the same for a given input.

All this changes when we add the element of learning. Brains that learn are not limited to behaving in a way determined by genetics. The experiences of a learning animal are stored in the brain as neural configurations. This mechanism has been developed by natural selection to enable animals to adapt to new conditions and information. Brains are choice machines. The whole point of having a brain is to make choices about actions in order to best serve the agent.

My position is simple; free will is an emergent property of learning brains. Any animal capable of learning has developed a unique brain configuration. You have a unique brain configuration. Your thoughts, actions and choices are not that of an automaton, determined at birth or the consequence of simple interactions with fixed output for every input. It is a reasoning machine that will make consistent decisions based on it’s internal state. For example, given the choice of stepping off a ledge to your death or stepping back almost everyone will choose to step back. This is not indicative of dumb natural processes, but rather the ability to intelligently choose which action to take. There is nothing random about it.

The fact that like computers the human brain is at base electrons and atoms interacting does not diminish the wonder of how this complex arrangement is able to observe, understand and act. Agents are free to act within their physical constraints. They can develop creative ways of solving problems they face. But we need to first understand that ‘we’ are an emergent artifact of our brains.

To say we make a decision is to say that our brain made a decision. So when we start tracing the path of activity within the brain to try and understand where ‘we’ are, where the origin of the decision comes from, we are failing to understand that decisions are an emergent property; you cannot point to one part of the brain and say that it alone is responsible for ‘self’.

Can we say that a murderer is simply a malfunctioning brain; that a murderer cannot be held responsible for their brain state? We are our brain state. Because the purpose of a brain is to make decisions about actions we can hold people to account for thier behaviour. Imposing consequences for antisocial actions is a means of neural reprogramming. In the most serious cases the actions of reasoning people determine that the antisocial people cannot be permitted to persist.

There may in fact be chemical or biological causes to some brain dysfunctions. However, to declare that someone has a faulty brain simply because they choose not to conform to our laws does not mean that they have a malfunctioning brain. It may be that it is simply a normal brain that has had adverse experiences which reinforced criminal activity as a good choice.

Is free will an illusion? Perhaps. But if so it will be in the same sense that the solid kitchen table is an illusion. Matter is mostly empty space, and so its solid nature is really an illusion, but we treat it as if it were real. We have no choice. And so for all practical purposes we can treat people as agents with the ability to make intelligent choices. Because that is what brains do.