Philosophers have been masticating the question of free will for many centuries. The net result of their efforts has been a dizzying array of different “flavors” of free will or the lack thereof. I invite anyone with the patience to attempt disentangling the various permutations and combinations thereof to start with the Wiki page, and take it from there. For the purpose of this post I will simply define free will as the ability to make choices that are not predetermined before we make the choice. This implies that our conscious minds are not entirely subject to deterministic physical laws, and have the power to alter physical reality. Lack of free will means the absence of this power, and implies that we lack the power to alter physical reality in any way. I personally have no idea whether we have free will or not. In my opinion, we currently lack the knowledge to answer the question. However, I believe that debating the matter is useless. Instead, we should assume that there is free will as the “default” position, and get on with our lives.
Of course, if there is no free will, my advice is useless. I am simply an automaton among automatons, adding to the chorus of sound and fury that signifies nothing. In that case the debate over free will is merely another amusing case of pre-programmed robots arguing over what they “should” believe, and what they “ought” to do as a consequence, in a world in which the words “should” and “ought” are completely meaningless. These words imply an ability to choose between two alternatives, but no such choice can exist if there is no free will. “Ought” we to alter the criminal justice system because we have decided there is no such thing as free will? If we have no free will, the question is meaningless. We cannot possibly alter the predetermined outcome of the debate, or the predetermined evolution of the criminal justice system, or even our opinion on whether it “ought” to be changed or not. Under the circumstances it can hardly hurt to assume that we do have free will. If so, the assumption must have been foreordained, and no conscious agency exists that could have altered the fact. If we don’t have free will, it is also absurd, if inevitable, to blame me or even take issue with me for advocating that we act as if we have free will. After all, in that case I couldn’t have acted or thought any differently, assuming my mind is an artifact of the physical world, and not a “ghost in the machine.” If we believe in free will but there is no free will, debate about the matter may or may not be inevitable, but it is certainly futile, because the outcome of the debate has been predetermined.
On the other hand, if we decide that there is no free will, but there actually is, it can potentially “hurt” a great deal. In that case, we will be basing our actions and our conclusions about what “ought” or “ought not” to be done on a false assumption. Whatever our idiosyncratic goals happen to be, it is more probable that we will attain them if we base our strategy for achieving them on truth rather than falsehood. If we have free will, the outcome of the debate matters. Suppose, for example, that the anti-free will side has much better debaters and convinces those watching the debate that they have no free will even if they do. Plausible results include despair, a sense of purposelessness, fatalism, a lethargic and indifferent attitude towards life, a feeling that nothing matters, etc. No doubt there are legions of philosophers out there who can prove that, because a = b and b = c, none of these reactions are reasonable. They will, however, occur whether they are reasonable or not.
I doubt that my proposed default position will be difficult to implement. Even the most diehard free will denialists seldom succeed in completely accepting the implications of their own theories. Look through their writings, and before long you’ll find a “should.” Read a bit further and you’re likely to stumble over an “ought” as well. However, as noted above, speaking of “should” and “ought” in the absence of free will is absurd. They imply the possibility of a choice between two alternatives that will lead to different outcomes. If there is no free will, there can be no choice. Individuals will do what they “ought” to do or “ought not” to do just as the arrangement of matter and energy in the universe happens to dictate. It is absurd to blame them for doing something they could not avoid. However, the question of whether they actually will be blamed or not is also predetermined. It is just as absurd to blame the blamers.
In short, I propose we all stop arguing and accept the default. If there is no free will, then obviously I am proposing it because of my programming. I can’t do otherwise even if I “ought” to. It’s possible my proposal may change things, but, if so, the change was inevitable. However, if there is free will, then believing in it is simply believing in the truth, and a truth that, at least from my point of view, happens to be a great deal more palatable than the alternative.