The biggest assumption people make when asking questions of this type are around the word "I".
What we refer to as "me" is actually a huge number of physical and conceptual entities in an enormous number of frames of reference. In each of these frames, it is valid to ask, "Does this entity have free will?"
Does your physical body have free will? Not really, its movement is strictly dictated by the laws of nature.
However, when we talk about "me" in a social context, as an agent acting in society, in that frame, my actions are not dictated by social laws. So, yes, in that frame I have free will. If I was an ant, I would have very little free will in a social frame, my actions would be dictated by a set of laws that exist above and outside of me. But a human in a human social frame has an enormous amount of free will.
So yea, very long semantic argument short:
Does free will exist? Yes.
I understood what you mean, but you are not right about the ants: nobody says what to do for the ant, every one of them acts on their own, it is that their goals are identical by nature.
I pretty much agree with this comment, until the end. At which point I still effectively agree, but think that there's disambiguation to be done.
I think that most people's concept of Free Will doesn't exist.
Physics constrains human action, and everything a material person does is in principle predictable, given precise measurements and knowledge of the laws of physics.
The concept of free will seems to be related to the idea of moral culpability. To the extent that I can still identify with myself even believing that I'm ultimately a collection of particles, I can hold myself and others responsible for our actions.
People don't try and predict what other people do by banging out physical calculations -- they try and predict other people by understanding them on a higher level of abstraction like psychology or empathy or trying to figure out what they think. This is just like a calculator. While it is ultimately a collection of particles, on a higher level it can be understood as a device that performs arithmetic.
It feels like Free Will exists because we don't try and predict people on the particle level, and our inner models of them seem to contain things like goals and volition. For example, if I pick up a rock and put it somewhere, it stays there until something else moves it. If I pick you up and put you somewhere, whether or not you stay there depends on whether or not you want to stay there. In order to accurately model you, I need to try and think about what you want to do, and hence I feel like you have Free Will.
If someone decides to punch someone else in the face, they can't say "Well, I was physically determined to do so" as a valid excuse. While that is true on the particle level, they are still a person who punches people in the face on the personal level.
If you decide to save children from a burning orphanage, it turns out that your particles are configured in a way that you go in and save children from a burning orphanage, and Physics makes that happen. You are still a good person who bravely saves children from a burning orphanage.
So while ultimately "Free Will" in the sense that people can literally do whatever and aren't ultimately bound by the laws of physics or something doesn't exist, people are still responsible for their actions, and are understood as acting in ways different from inanimate objects.
I remember you telling me about this post a couple months ago and I definitely had it in mind when reading this Atlantic piece: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2011/07/the-brain-on-trial/8520/
I wrote about this a bit here: http://www.ajkesslerblog.com/free-will-doesnt-exist/
TL;DR version: for chemical/biological reasons, it seems we are definitely capable of losing our free will in a variety of terrifying ways.
nice post, funny yet very direct.
also, i wanted to draw your attention here
since that was a particularly brilliant post on that blog.
I took a semester of philosophy, this is what I remember:
The biggest argument against free will came from determinism. If the laws of physics apply absolutely to every single particle, you can predict how they will behave in the future. Given enough information about the universe you could predict the past and the future precisely. And that would be exactly the future. You couldn't make any choices to change it, because the future only depends on the state of the world right before it.
Even in a nondeterministic world (our current view), where you can't make a machine to predict the future, you still don't have free will, because you don't choose the positions of the particles, they're random.
To have free will, we would need a special property that only us humans in the universe would have. Except we're made of matter, and rocks are too. You would need to explain how we could have choices and rocks don't.
The easy way out is to say that we're not all stardust, we have supraphysical minds that don't depend on the material world and that's how we make decisions. In the end that is also a mess because you still have to explain how your mind interacts with the matter.
I agree with your conclusion. I took away from it that whether or not we have it, we need to believe in it as a society. Most of the way we see the world depends on free will. As an example, our system of law depends on it. You can't tell the judge it was the initial configuration of the universe or the paths of the electron clouds in your brain that made you do it.
And believing you're destined to do it could just lead to sitting on your couch all day, because "it's your destiny". Since you don't know it yet, your destiny is what you make it.