We all want to believe in free will, don't we? We want to feel that we consciously choose what we do, and that other people do as well. As far as other people go, how can we hold people morally or ethically responsible for their actions if they didn't actually do them freely?
However, free will has a huge problem. You see, clearly what we do that isn't reflexive or instinctive is the result of activities in our brain. Now, either we believe that actions are the result of a chain of deterministic cause and effect OR our actions are based on something random or outside our control, such as cosmic rays striking neurons or subatomic events.
But there is the problem, neither determinism nor randomness seem to rescue free will from the clutches of nonsense. When you look closely, it doesn't appear that we actually have free will.
Lately, brain science has discovered that sub- or pre-conscious parts of our brain know what we will do shortly before our decisions appear to our conscious mind. In other words, with the exception reflexive or instinctive responses to events, our actions are decided before we know them. They are decided in a place where the conscious mind doesn't engage in thoughtful deliberation. Yet another way in which it's becoming clear that we really don't have free will.
And yet we continue to feel a need to condemn and punish those whose behaviors we don't like, even though we ourselves have no control over liking or disliking these activities. What we and others do as well as what we and others condemn seems to be about our/their and not an expression of freedom or free will.
Free will is a concept that seemingly doesn't make sense from the get go.
"Free will" refers to our ability to make choices, but when we think about making choices, there is usually some reason we make a choice, subconscious or not, so the decision ends up being deterministic anyways.
If we had free will, we could change our personality, prejudices, sexuality, impulses, addictions at will, but we can't in most cases. We are very much limited by our brain chemistry and structure, as well as our social conditioning, culture, knowledge, etc that follow.
I left out a crucial word. "What we and others do as well as what we and others condemns seems to be about our nature and not an expression of freedom or free will" (and I mean individual nature not human nature). People with a paranoid nature tend to have behaviors governed by that, for example.
As for payback, it depends on what you mean by "crazy." What can we say about a situation where both the malefactor and the person who would do otherwise are simply being who they are, and cannot really be or do otherwise?
I think its a mistake to go too far into reductionism in this area. We are talking about micro activity and trying to relate it to a macro one. While I'm sure there is a relation I don't think we are yet at a point where we can say absolutely that since micro-acivity happens first..we don't have free will. It may be part of it but I don't think its the whole story.
There's a lot more work to do defining 'we' first before 'we' can jump to the concept of whether 'we' have free will or not.
I happen to think we have a calculating will...(whether its free or not depends on how you define 'free')... A calculating will depends upon actions and experience.. and the more you have the more you define the parameters and narrow the options available to it. This doesn't mean you can't zing completely off course to how you normally behave every once in a while.
Do we really think the preconscious brain decides whether we have chinese or mexican tonight and the conscious mind doesn't have any say in the process? I'm not ready to jump that far yet.
We have programmable consciousnesses.. and even self-programming to some degree. We are limited to the toolbox that our society, culture, and history gives us and that makes it very difficult to step outside of it to anything approaching what you might call 'freedom'. I think we can make decisions and that we have some leeway in the choices that are available to us. Is that really free will? I don't know.
It appears from your last paragraph that you have pretty much arrived at my view but from a somewhat different direction.
Ultimately, I think the problem is that there is no satisfactory definition of "free" that allows for assigning praise or blame in any sort of moralistic sense. "Free" is a word we think we understand until we think about it with a mind to defining it. If we define it as "not bound or forced," I don't know how we could ever assert that as a fact, except in terms of our ignorance, such as "I don't KNOW that I am really, when you get right down to it, everything considered, not able to do whatever I want to do."
Science offers us only two models of activity: determined activity and random activity, and neither one seems very pleasing. If a criminal does what he does because of a cascade of cause and effect, he's not responsible for that. If his actions are ultimately random in nature, that makes him seem perhaps even less responsible for his actions.
Some people say "as long as you have choices before you and you can in principle choose any one of them, then you are free and responsible and that's all there is to it." This method of rescuing freedom takes the form of simply deciding it's better to be ignorant than to know. It also ignores the often crucial fact that WHY people choose something is often even at least as important as WHAT they choose.
Now, I happen to be a philosophical materialist. In philosophy, this means simply that I believe that matter (and of course its conversion into energy) is all that really is. I don't know how "will" fits into such a scheme. "Will" like "free" is one of those words whose meaning tends to evaporate the more we attempt to define it.
To talk about "willing" something seems to imply a body/spirit dualism (to a materialist, "spirit" simply doesn't exist, and "mind" is simply an epiphenomenon of the brain). I would expect most consistent atheists, who reject the idea of a spirit in the form of God, to reject the idea of a spirit inhabiting the human body in the form of a ghost or soul. Philosophical dualism has often been described as the "ghost in the machine" theory because one has to believe in a spirit (aka ghost or soul) in command of the body to hold this position.
The ghost in the machine theory asserts that something different from the body and exempt from physical laws can control the body and make the body do this and that. However, one thing it doesn't explain is how noncorporeal spiritual entities work. It would seem that even a soul or spirit free of deterministic physical laws would have to be bound by some sort of rules to exist at all!