Free will matters to us. It's deeply embedded in the ways we think and live. It's hard to shake.
It appears to be pre-supposed - and "pre-supposed" almost seems too mild a term to express how deep the assumption of free will runs in us - but it appears to be a prerequisite of our praising and blaming others since most of us assume if others were not responsible for what they did, they would not deserve praise or blame. Indeed, our holding others morally responsible appears to require free will, that is, requires that those we hold responsible have acted of their own accord, of their own free will?
As one way to start to think about this question, consider the following:
You are reading "Paper Topic Number Two." And so far, you have read this far.
But now think, think for a moment. Should you continue to read or should you, perhaps, stop reading?
You have a choice. You can read the next sentence or stop. To read or not to read.
Make up your mind. Which will it be? What is your decision?
If you're reading this, this next sentence of the paper topic, you must have decided to read on. You made up your mind. You decided to read on. No? Or did you just have to keep reading, no one, two or three ways about it?
But, surely, you could have stopped. You could have stopped reading if you chose. You could have let your mind wander, no? You could have thought of other things ("going for a swim") or decided you were hungry and wanted a snack instead. A snack would be good about now, no?
Of course, you could have thought about other things, but you decided not to.
After all, you have free will.
We all have free will. No?
But wait a minute. Perhaps you are thinking too quickly. Perhaps you are not really giving this matter sufficient attention. You are made up of matter, of chemicals, atoms, and cells. You are made up of physical particles and these particles move one way or another because certain forces act upon them. Given that you are made up of particles with these forces acting upon them, you had to keep reading.
There was no "alternative" or "otherwise" about it. You could not have acted otherwise. You had no alternative. You had no choice. Your decision was not free.
This, in a nutshell, is the problem of free will. It's not an easy problem to solve. Putting the matter this way comes from an account of the "free will problem" by Ted Sider who teaches philosophy at NYU. It's most simple formulation, according to Sider and many others, might be put this way: science apparently teaches us that there are laws of nature and that part of the point of science is to discover these laws. The laws of nature capture the underlying causes of things.
If we go back to some "fixed" point in the past, applying the laws of nature, every point from the "fixed" point forward is also fixed, given and in principle could be predicted if we had the information necessary to do the calculations. But if all events, occurrences, thoughts, actions can be predicted, given the laws of nature, how is free will possible?
There seems to be no place for it in the "laws of nature" scheme of things. And yet we hold people morally responsible, believing they have free will.