If you imagine that the human brain is like a giant computer, you may arrive at the conclusion that we don’t possess free will. After all, computers just follow a set of instructions. And if you think that the brain is made of atoms that follow deterministic laws, then you’ll arrive at the same conclusion. But are we more than just simple machines?
I’m not a believer in a “soul” or some other kind of supernatural “ghost in the machine”. If you believe that, then you can believe literally anything.
Nor do I subscribe to Roger Penrose’s proposal that the randomness of quantum mechanics allows a loophole by which free will can enter. If you argue that the behaviour of the brain is based on randomness, that just leads you to the conclusion that our thinking is determined by random physical processes instead of deterministic ones. It isn’t an argument in favour of free will.
Yet, the logic that says we are just deterministic machines governed by the behaviour of the atoms that make up our brain is a fallacy. It’s the fallacy of reductionism.
Suppose I read a joke and I find it funny. I laugh out loud. In my brain a lot is happening. Neurons are firing. Chemical and electrical signals are shooting everywhere. Proteins are shifting around. An unimaginable number of atoms are doing things they weren’t doing before I read the joke.
What caused that? Did the atoms in my brain do it? Or did the joke (which exists outside my brain on a computer screen) do it? Or is it best explained in terms of high-level concepts and understandings in my mind?
I think the latter is the best way to explain what happened.
Let’s look at it another way. Can physics explain how some photons bounced off my computer screen, entered my eye and triggered a huge amount of electro-chemical activity in my brain and central nervous system, resulting in my body creating sound waves of laughter? Well it can, but not easily, and it isn’t the right kind of explanation.
A better explanation would involve concepts like “joke” and “funny” and “laugh”, rather than concepts like “atom” and “chemical” and “photon”.
In other words, do moving atoms in my brain create my thoughts, or do thoughts in my mind cause atoms to move around my brain?
If you think of the mind as an entity comprised of thoughts and concepts, that cause chemical reactions to occur in the brain, then you can easily imagine that we do have free will after all.