The Stone at New York Times is a great resource for insights into both contemporary and rather ancient discussions in philosophy. Here’s William Irvin at King’s College discoursing on free will and moral decision-making. The central problem is one that we all discussed in high school: if our atomistic world is deterministic in that there is a chain of causation from one event to another (contingent in the last post), and therefore even our mental processes must be caused, then there is no free will in the expected sense (“libertarian free will” in the literature). This can be overcome by the simplest fix of proposing a non-material soul that somehow interacts with the material being and is inherently non-deterministic. This results in a dualism of matter and mind that doesn’t seem justifiable by any empirical results. For instance, we know that decision-making does appear to have a neuropsychological basis because we know about the effects of lesioning brains, neurotransmitters, and even how smells can influence decisions. Irving also claims that the realization of the potential loss of free will leaves us awash in some sense of hopelessness at the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical reality of an objective moral system. Without free will we seem off the hook for our decisions.
Compatibilists will disagree, and might even cite quantum indeterminacy as a rescue donut for pulling some notion of free will up out of the deep ocean of Irving’s despair. But the fix is perhaps even easier than that. Even though we might recognize that there are chains of causation at a microscopic scale, the macroscopic combinations of these events—even without quantum indeterminacy—becomes only predictable along broad contours of probabilistic outcomes. We start with complex initial conditions and things just get worse from there. By the time we get to exceedingly complex organisms deciding things, we also have elaborate control cycles influenced by childhood training, religion, and reason that cope with this ambiguity and complexity. The metaphysical reality of morality or free will may be gone, but there is no need for fictionalism. They are empirically real and any sense of loss is tied to merely overcoming the illusions arriving from these incompatibilities between everyday reasoning and the deeper appreciation of the world as it is, thermodynamic warts and all.