What science tells us about one of life’s biggest unanswered questions is, naturally, much contested. Jim Al-Khalili, a UK physicist and president of the British Humanist Association, recently asked: “So do we have free will or not?” The question came midway through an essay on the subject, and his answer is, “Yes,”
I believe we still do. And it is rescued not by quantum mechanics, as some physicists argue, but by chaos theory. For it doesn’t matter that we live in a deterministic universe in which the future is, in principle, fixed. That future is only knowable if we were able to view the whole of space and time from the outside. But for us, and our consciousnesses, imbedded within space-time, that future is never knowable to us. It is that very unpredictability that gives us an open future. The choices we make are, to us, real choices, and because of the butterfly effect, tiny changes brought about by our different decisions can lead to very different outcomes, and hence different futures.
So, thanks to chaos theory our future is never knowable to us. You might prefer to say that the future is preordained and that our free will is just an illusion, but the point is our actions still determine which of the infinite number of possible futures is the one that gets played out.
Hogwash, says evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, who contends that Al-Khalili is essentially trying to paper over an palatable truth for the masses. Coyne writes:
It’s time to admit that our choices are made by our genetic and environmental history, for only that admission will enable us to adddress the legal and moral changes that must accompany an understanding of how our brain works and why we behave as we do.
I haven’t made up my mind on this question of free will. I’m sympathetic to both of the above arguments. Meanwhile, maybe, as Kris Kristofferson wrote in Me & Bobby McGee, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Here’s the version of that song most of us know best, from Janis Joplin, recorded just before her death. Today she would turned 70.