This discussion has been superseded by "Refutation of Hard Determinism and Serious Potential for Free Will".
Free will can be a very contentious topic. People can't seem to agree on what it means, exactly. Much of the difficulty arises from the use of the word, "free", in the term, "free will". To be truly, whimsically, free would require supernatural agency. We CAN'T act contrary to natural law, so we are constrained by nature. Free will, therefore, exists in context of the most basic of natural laws: causality.
Free will constrained by causality? To those who believe free will is caused or created from within one's self, the idea of free will constrained by causality seems anything but free. The main point I want to make is that free will is NOT caused or created within . . . it is produced by our interaction with the world around us.
By the phrase, "the world around us", I'm referring mostly to causality. Causality is behind everything that happens. As I'll explain, It's a profound paradox that free will is a product of causality . . . NOT a personal, spontaneous, cause unto itself. We need to bear this in mind throughout this discussion. If I contradict causality (which I won't), then my argument for free will is flawed. It might be anyway . . . but you'll need to persuade me if you think it is. :-)
I think the greatest difficulty in understanding free will as self-determinism is the notion that we CAUSE our actions. That is NOT the case. Because causality is usually a chain-reaction of events, cause and effect are relative and depend on perspective. For instance, one could say that 65 million years ago, a global die-off of dinosaurs was caused by the impact of a huge meteor in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. But we could also describe the cause by going back a step and claiming that the global die-off was caused by a collision of huge meteors in the meteor belt that sent one of them ricocheting to Earth. With that perspective, the collision of meteors was the cause -- and impact with Earth, at the Yucatan Peninsula, was the effect.
Now, let's apply true causality to the human brain.
Consciousness is NOT "all in the head" -- it is the interaction of our brains and sensory organs with the world around us. If any 1 of these 3 components NEVER existed, there could be no consciousness. Please don't confuse that assertion with cases in which consciousness existed but was lost or obscured due to injury or illness. In such cases, experience has had a chance to inform those brains before they were damaged. My particular claim is that if we NEVER had a brain or sensory organs or a world around us (or any combination thereof), there could be no experience to be informed or conscious of.
But once we ARE conscious, we soak up experience like a sponge. This would not be possible without feedback mechanisms in the brain. Without feedback, we could not retrieve memories or entertain thoughts or weigh experience. Without feedback, stimuli from the outside world can't be examined or recalled.
Feedback is not only key to consciousness, it's also key to free will. Feedback allows us to anticipate and analyze causality and the world around us. Science has yet to discover any direction for time except forward. This means that causality can only unfold in the present. Mental feedback, by allowing us to anticipate the future, gives us a crucial, temporal, advantage over causality (which I'll develop, below).
Intelligent human beings use this temporal advantage as naturally as fish breathe water. It's virtually impossible to disassociate the future from human actions. Everything we do anticipates the future: whether that be half a second or half a century from now.
Causality exerts its influence on EVERYTHING. But, when it comes to animate beings, causality is merely an influence -- NOT a controlling factor. It is inanimate matter -- not animate beings -- that is controlled by causality. Inanimate matter has just one possible reaction to any event. But animate beings have VARIABLE POTENTIAL REACTIONS to any event. Animate beings are NOT physically predictable in the same way that inanimate matter is. This distinction between the modes of response by inanimate matter and animate beings is important when considering causality and free will. It's the difference between a rock and a human.
Despite the fact that other animals appear to have consciousness and even some modest intelligence, I'll be limiting my explanation of free will to humans.
So I've established that (1) both consciousness and free will rely on our brains interacting with the world around us AND that (2) both would be impossible without feedback mechanisms in the brain. I've also distinguished between (3) the animate and inanimate modes of response to causality and established (4) the temporal advantage over causality we gain by anticipating the future. These 4 concepts are important to my explanation of self-determinism (a.k.a. "free will").
Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to understanding self-determinism is the notion that we create or cause free will "from within". This is not true. Causality does not stop at our skulls. There is no duality; no convenient break in cause and effect. We are not islands of liberty in a universe of causality. Our free will is no more independent of causality than our consciousness is. Causality defines the scope of our consciousness, experience and free will. Thanks to mental feedback, causality merely limits us instead of controls us. We can respond to causality now based on what we expect from causality in the future. This is just another way of saying we are intelligent beings. Intelligence isn't possible without reasonably informed foresight.
So, if we don't create or cause consciousness and free will from within, how can we have free agency? The answer is: we don't have free agency without interacting with the world around us. Thus consciousness and free will are PRODUCTS of the interaction between intelligent human brains and the world around us. We don't generate them on our own; from within. We are not causes unto ourselves. We are confined by causal factors. And when it comes to causal factors, our brains (and mental feedback) are the super-cops. No other causal factor(s) bear more weight on our actions.
Please keep that in mind: free will, like consciousness, is a product of, and is dependent on, causality -- not an independent, spontaneous, dualistic, cause unto itself.
Now we're getting down to the nitty-gritty.
Causal factors are those parts of causality that affect specific events and/or our reactions to them. Heredity, intelligence, reflex, instinct, memories, experience, ethics, education, plans and ambitions are causal factors we acquire at conception or over time. Stimuli and events from the world around us, on the other hand, are real-time; in the present. In our interaction with the world around us, mental processing is the last step before action. Our brains contain all the causal factors we were born with or built up over time. They all factor into our actions, as applicable. Mental feedback is the real key to free will which, like the world around us, operates in real-time; in the present.
Please don't forget: mental feedback is a causal factor too. But it's a unique causal factor.
When you think about it, "mental feedback" is a paraphrase of "self-conscious". With mental feedback, causal factors involved in a situation -- including forethought and anticipation -- get instantly evaluated by the brain before a thought, idea, choice or action emerges.
Everything leading up to our emergent thoughts, ideas, choices and actions are integral steps of causal chain-reactions. Self-conscious mental feedback is the key to integrating virtually ALL our conscious actions. This very human quality of self-consciousness plus the temporal advantage we have over causality is a powerful combination. As far as we know, it's unique in the universe. Our self-aware intelligence is evolved to anticipate, recognize and analyze causality and, in so doing, choose causal paths into a future of our own making. In other words, we are self-aware AND future-aware, our own mental feedback leads to choices and actions that uniquely suit us . . . within the constraints of all the causal factors involved -- of which, remember, mental feedback is the most dominant causal factor of all.
This is how the interaction of our brains with the world around us PRODUCES free will. It's not the free will of unbridled liberty. It's the free will that leads us into futures of our own choosing. We have evolved to be self-aware and future-aware. Survival, as intelligent beings, means competing and cooperating as both individuals and social animals. Competing and cooperating imply purpose. Purpose implies free will. That's a philosophical assertion. But a more practical assertion that we can all recognize is that we are both self-conscious and future-conscious. Consider for a moment how this combination works with mental feedback to incorporate causality into our own, unique, experience and goals.
When determinism meets self-conscious human intelligence, it becomes self-determinism. That's the paradox. We DON'T exercise free will against, or despite, causality. We USE causality to exercise free will. That's what it means to be human and intelligent in a universe ruled by causality.
Free will is us choosing futures based on who we are and what we want. Success is choosing wisely.